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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on March 28-29, 2007.

Over the last six decades, Art Shay has photographed everything from heroin addicts on Chicago streets to movie stars like Marlon Brando.

Shay, a native of the Bronx who has lived in Deerfield for 53 years, captured life’s humorous little moments as well as dramatic, earth-shaking events, such as the 1968 Democratic convention.

On Saturday, as Shay celebrates his 85th birthday, the Chicago History Museum will open an exhibit called “The Essential Art Shay: Selected Photographs.” Also, through May 26, Chicago’s Stephen Daiter Gallery is showcasing Shay photos along with a companion book, “Art Shay: Chicago Accent.”

And on April 24, Shay’s latest book, “Chicago’s Nelson Algren,” will come out, updating and expanding his earlier “Nelson Algren’s Chicago.”

“Art succeeded in a lot of ways because he is extremely versatile and ambitious, and his style is somewhat eclectic,” said Leigh Moran, collection manager for prints and photographs at the Chicago History Museum.

Shay spoke about his long career in a recent phone interview.

Q: As a young man, how did Chicago strike you?

A: I came from a sunny San Francisco, where I had been deposed as Life’s youngest bureau chief. I arrived in Chicago on a November or December gray day, came into Midway airport, and the cab driver took me on a $9 ride instead of a $4 ride. That was my first exposure to Chicago crime.

I liked the city because it’s the same sort of city that I am a person. It’s sort of rough-edged with a lot of intellectuality if you look for it. And if you don’t, well (expletive) it.

Q: You’re both a photographer and a writer. How do you balance the two?

A: I’m a writer by trade. I’ll quote Chekhov for you, though of course I’m not in his league. He said he was a doctor first, then a writer. He said, “I feel that medicine is my wife, and playwriting is my mistress. When I tire of one, I go to the other.”

I began as a kid in high school, writing for my high school paper and during my nine months in college before I went into World War II as a flyboy.

My first published picture was of a midair collision in England in ’44, when I was coming back from a mission. The sky was full of planes and I just pointed the Leica up and all of a sudden, two of the planes hit. I had about 10 shots left on the Leica roll and I kept shooting — shoot, wind, shoot, wind — as they came down with the plumes of smoke, with this colonel pulling at me, saying, “You can’t shoot that, lieutenant, it’s restricted.” I kept moving away, shooting the (expletive) pictures. Anyway, they ended up in Look.

Q: Some photographers take many shots, and others bide their time and take only a few. Which are you?

A: The first category. In 1960, for the Kennedy-Nixon debate, I bought three new motorized cameras that had just come out, took about four frames per second, Nikons. I knew we were only going to have two minutes with the candidates.

That’s when Kennedy spoke to me. I was down loading the cameras and this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, “Say, where does a fellow take a whiz around here?”

We had literally two minutes. I shot Kennedy and Nixon together. I had three motorized cameras, four frames a second. In effect, I had 90 usable color frames, of which Time used one full page.

Q: Your eldest son, Harmon, disappeared in 1972, when he was hitchhiking in Florida. How have you coped with that?

A: Not too well. He was an amazing kid who had 800 out of 800 on his SAT. He was sixth in his class at Deerfield…

He goes hitchhiking toward Lauderdale from Miami. And that’s the last we — he called his grandma and said, “I met some people. I’ll be back tomorrow or the next day.” And there’s no tomorrow and there’s no next day.

So we went down there, like people in a TV show. But we’ve never had a body, never had anything. We just know he’s dead. So, I was 50 at the time, and that broke my life in two.

We had four other kids, but this just was something you can’t really handle. I still can’t. I still drive along and occasionally cry. I talk to him.

That’s why I’m especially sensitive to the losses in Iraq, knowing that each family is bearing the kind of thing that I’m bearing. I went through (World War II), and would gladly have given my life up for my country. … But that seemed to me a war worth fighting. This one doesn’t. They project those pictures (on television news) of these bright young soldiers, guys and girls, and I just weep and turn it off.

Q: As a photographer, do you see the world differently?

A: As a photographer, the camera is really an extension of the eye. When we’re kids, we all think we see the world privately, the way we do and nobody sees it the same way. And then, when you get older, you realize everybody sees it the same way. But when you get older still, you realize you were right the first time.

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on December 3, 2008.

When John Mahoney needed a refresher course on how to do a Dublin accent, he went straight to an expert — the acclaimed Irish actor Gabriel Byrne.

Mahoney, the Oak Park actor best known for his role in the 1993-2004 sitcom “Frazier,” was working on his brogue for the new Colin McPherson play “The Seafarer,” which begins previews Thursday, Dec. 4, at Steppenwolf Theatre. And by a lucky coincidence, Mahoney is spending his Mondays and Tuesdays in New York acting alongside Byrne in season 2 of the HBO series “In Treatment.”

In between takes for the HBO show, Mahoney would chat with Byrne, a Dublin native, paying close attention to the lilt of his voice. Byrne even taped himself reading lines from Mahoney’s script of “The Seafarer.”

“Does it help!” Mahoney says.

Of course, it might also help that Mahoney grew up in England, and that he had a grandfather from Ireland. “I have a lot of Irish in me,” he says. But Mahoney deliberately lost his British accent when he moved to the United States as a young man.

This is Mahoney’s second time acting in a McPherson play directed by Randall Arney, after appearing in Arney’s production of “The Weir” at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. In “The Seafarer,” Mahoney plays Richard, the cantankerous brother of Sharky (Francis Guinan), who receives a mysterious visit from a man (Tom Irwin) seeking payment on an old debt.

“The climax takes place during a card game, where the stranger tries to exact this debt that Sharkey owes him,” Mahoney says. “I’m a filthy old drunk, recently blind, chronically hung over. We’ve always had problems with each other, but underneath it all, we’re brothers and we’ll look out for each other. I’ll say terrible things about him, but I’ll kill anybody who says anything about him to me.”

It’s one of two McPherson plays the Steppenwolf is staging this season, following “Dublin Carol” starring William Petersen, which runs through Jan. 4.

Meanwhile, Mahoney’s playing a CEO going through therapy with Byrne’s psychiatrist character on “In Treatment,” which will air in the spring.

“I’ve been offered a few pilots for sitcoms, but I just don’t want to leave home again,” Mahoney says. “Mostly I’ve been on stage. It’s my first love. I don’t care if I ever go in front of a camera again, really. But I couldn’t turn ‘In Treatment’ because the script was too great.”

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on December 3, 2008.

When John Mahoney needed a refresher course on how to do a Dublin accent, he went straight to an expert — the acclaimed Irish actor Gabriel Byrne.

Mahoney, the Oak Park actor best known for his role in the 1993-2004 sitcom “Frazier,” was working on his brogue for the new Colin McPherson play “The Seafarer,” which begins previews Thursday (Dec. 4) at Steppenwolf Theater. And by a lucky coincidence, Mahoney is spending his Mondays and Tuesdays in New York acting alongside Byrne in season 2 of the HBO series “In Treatment.”

In between takes for the HBO show, Mahoney would chat with Byrne, a Dublin native, paying close attention to the lilt of his voice. Byrne even taped himself reading lines from Mahoney’s script of “The Seafarer.”

“Does it help!” Mahoney says.

Of course, it might also help that Mahoney grew up in England, and that he had a grandfather from Ireland. “I have a lot of Irish in me,” he says. But Mahoney deliberately lost his British accent when he moved to the United States as a young man.

This is Mahoney’s second time acting in a McPherson play directed by Randall Arney, after appearing in Arney’s production of “The Weir” at Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. In “The Seafarer,” Mahoney plays Richard, the cantankerous brother of Sharky (Francis Guinan), who receives a mysterious visit from a man seeking payment on an old debt (Tom Irwin).

“The climax takes place during a card game, where the stranger tries to exact this debt that Sharkey owes him,” Mahoney says. “I’m a filthy old drunk, recently blind, chronically hung over … We’ve always had problems with each other, but underneath it all, we’re brothers and we’ll look out for each other. I’ll say terrible things about him, but I’ll kill anybody who says anything about him to me.”

It’s one of two McPherson plays the Steppenwolf is staging this season, following “Dublin Carol” starring William Petersen, which runs through Jan. 4.

Meanwhile, Mahoney’s playing a CEO going through therapy with Byrne’s psychiatrist character on “In Treatment,” which will air in the spring.

“I’ve been offered a few pilots for sitcoms, but I just don’t want to leave home again,” Mahoney says. “Mostly I’ve been on stage. It’s my first love. I don’t care if I ever go in front of a camera again, really. But I couldn’t turn ‘In Treatment’ because the script was too great.”

 

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 4, 2008.

Clark Weber has a million stories: He kicked the Monkees out of a radio station when they tore up some drapes. He saw Phil Spector carrying a .38 revolver. He had lunch with the Beatles. And an 8-year-old kid named Michael Jackson sang in his office one day.

Those are just a few of the amazing but true anecdotes Weber accumulated during his career as a disc jockey and program director at WLS AM and other stations in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. So why has this Wilmette resident waited until now to write a book about his life? Actually, he tried three times to write a memoir, but he just couldn’t get the hang of how to tell the stories on the page.

“It just didn’t capture it,” he says. “It wasn’t me.”

And then Neal Samors, the Buffalo Grove resident who has written and published several books about Chicago, interviewed Weber for the 2006 book Chicago in the Sixties. Samors told Weber he should write a book.

“Clark was a legend to me,” Samors says. “I’d grown up listening to WLS. He had a great collection of photos and memorabilia. And he’s a great storyteller.”

This time, Samors helped Weber get started by interviewing him and transcribing the tapes. But after a while, Weber started writing chapters and turning them over to Samors to edit. The result is Clark Weber’s Rock and Roll Radio: The Fun Years: 1955-1975, which Samors published through his company, Chicago’s Books Press.

Lavishly illustrated with pictures from Weber’s collection, the book comes with a CD featuring old WLS jingles and DJ banter.

“I wanted people to have a good time when they read this,” Weber says. “This was their life; this was their prom, this was their ’57 Chevy.”

Weber looks back with pride on his days as WLS program director in the ’60s. It was an era before corporate mergers homogenized the radio business. A station with a powerful signal like WLS could choose to play records by local bands and turn them into regional or even national hits.

“There were a number of very talented garage bands that did as good a good, or an even better job, than the national groups,” Weber says, referring to Chicago bands such as the New Colony Six and the Buckinghams. “And if we out them on the air, they would tell their fans. You would give a boost to some kids who never would have a shot at stardom.”

Weber proved over time that he had a good ear for which records would be popular. On one occasion, a young singer named Neil Diamond nervously waited outside the WLS studios to see what Weber thought of his record. Other stations didn’t understand what Diamond was trying to do with his folk rock, but Weber spotted a star in the making. Still, he admits he wasn’t always right. He initially dismissed “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and Papas.

“I thought that was a West Coast record, appealing to only people on the coast,” he says.

Weber once sparked controversy by predicting that the Dave Clark Five would become more popular than the Beatles. He says now he didn’t really believe that.

“I knew of course how big the Beatles were,” he says, explaining that he made the remark to get Beatles fans riled up. “I would cause the girls to sit up and say, ‘How dare he!’”

The Beatles made a good impression on Weber when he had lunch with them, although he found John Lennon to be a little surly.

“They were clearly overwhelmed by their fame,” he says.

As for the Monkees, Weber thinks they just got a little carried away with their antics when they trashed the WLS lobby. “They thought they could do the same thing they could do in the movies,” Weber says.

Weber kicked them out, but they came back the next day to apologize. “They were very contrite,” he says.

Losing interest in rock music as it changed in the early ’70s, Weber went into talk radio. For the past 15 years, he has run an advertising agency, Clark Weber Associates. He also records a one-minute commentary called “A Senior Moment,” which airs on 28 radio stations.

Weber is not thrilled with today’s radio industry, however, criticizing the lack of variety and the excessive number of commercials. “I give music radio about five more years,” he says. “If they don’t change music radio as we know it, it will be dead.”

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This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on March 2, 2008.

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The two albums that Portishead released in 1994 and 1997 still sound otherworldly, no matter how many times we’ve heard then. After a long hiatus, the British trio has returned, sounding stranger than ever. As forlorn and heartbroken as always, singer Beth Gibbons manages to sound simultaneously distant, like a beacon from another planet, and close, like a whisper in your ear. In spite of the occasional ukulele strum, “Third” tends more toward aggressive beats than previous Portishead records, at times resembling a computer simulation of a rivet factory or the weapon in the title of one song, “Machine Gun.” The noise never gets downright nasty, and somehow the combination of sharp sonic shocks with Gibbons’ mournful crooning is soothingly bittersweet.

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on December 5, 2007.

Four decades after she began making records, Detroit R&B singer Bettye LaVette finally broke through to national acclaim last year with her album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise.”

Praised by many critics as one of 2005’s best records, it showcased LaVette’s soulful vocals on songs by Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Aimee Mann and other female songwriters. LaVette … talked about her career recently in a telephone interview.

Q: First of all, congratulations on your recent success.

A: I am so relieved. I thought I was going to die old, broke and in obscurity.

Q: When you had a few R&B hits in the 1960s, did you feel like you had a good shot then at becoming a star?

A: Oh, absolutely. I didn’t know any other stars. I didn’t know anybody who had gone on the road and traveled to these places and heard themselves on the radio, so certainly — not on my way to being a star, I was a star.

Q: Did you find the fact that you never became famous frustrating, or did you feel like you were doing pretty well as a singer?

A: That was extremely frustrating and I was not doing pretty well. I was starving to death when my friends were rich. It really became a matter of embarrassment when I got to be 50 and couldn’t pick up my own tabs. But I’ve always been surrounded by some people who picked up my tabs and got me to the next gig, whether the gig paid $20 or more. No one has ever said, “You should quit this and get a job of some kind.” No one has ever said those words to me, no one, no matter how much of their money I spent.

Q: And did those words ever cross your own mind?

A: They crossed my own mind all the time, when I wasn’t thinking, “I should just go on top of a building and just start shooting at cars.” I had all kinds of frustrating thoughts. It was just the things that people were saying to me. And I imagine that has to have a great deal to do with ego when people can just talk you out of killing yourself or talk you into starving yourself for 40 years. But every time anybody heard me, they liked me.

Q: Was it just bad luck or getting bad treatment from people in the record industry?

A: A lot of bad treatment. I’m able to see it a little clearer now.  … Now I see how different I sound. I really sound more like Wilson Pickett than I do Dionne Warwick. I think for maybe 30 years of my career, people didn’t exactly what kind of singer I was.

Now, what has happened is that a record company (the Anti label) met me, who did not look at (SoundScan) to see how many records I had sold. They came to see my live show, and they liked the fact that I sounded like Wilson Pickett and signed me.

Q: How did your comeback begin?

A: I’m not having a comeback. I’ve never had any other gig but this. And I’ve always worked. I think that it’s a broader discovery than the 20 people a night, maybe, who were coming to see me at small clubs in Detroit. If I accept the word “comeback,” then I’ll have to neglect the fact that I’ve been completely ignored and that the industry didn’t help me. And I refuse to do that.

The booking agency Rosebud came to see me and signed me. And they started to book me at blues festivals all over the world, which allowed me to introduce myself to a whole other group of people. By the booking agency signing me and allowing me to be my own distributor and ambassador, I was able to do songs from the CDs and sell them from the stage.

Q: Why weren’t you initially thrilled with the concept of doing an album with all of the songs written by women?

A: Usually women came from a more mistreated point of view. I’m not to be ****ed with, because I’m old and I’ve earned every day that I have here. And everything that is happening to me I actually worked for. So I don’t want anybody ****ing with me, and I want to do tunes that exemplify that. And usually men are only allowed to say that, so I’ve always done men’s tunes.

But when I listened to the songs that (executive producer Andy Kaulkin) sent me for “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” out of a hundred songs, I knew that eventually I would find something.  He didn’t send me 100 at a time. He sent me about twenty at a time. Sometimes I didn’t pick any, sometimes I’d pick one. He was really — “How can you listen all of these great songs?”

I said, “Because I’m not listening to them for entertainment. I’m listening to them to sing.” They have to mean what I want them to mean. And they have to be things that I can put into my own mouth.

There was a lot of tweaking that I had to do. Some of them were done by women who were too young to have that attitude that they have, so I thought I would just take that young attitude and take it to the wall.

And some of them were from a woman from another lifestyle — like with Dolly Parton. That’s the way a woman from the Appalachian hills would feel about it. I just interpreted it the way a city black woman would feel: “I ain’t no sparrow.”

When I listen to the song, I don’t hear the singer. That’s why I don’t have any barriers with country or rock or pop or whatever, I just hear the song. And if that’s what I want to sing, then I sing it.

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 6, 2007.

Grace Slick hasn’t sung on a stage since 1989. These days, the former vocalist for Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship spends her time drawing and painting.

Slick will make appearances Sept. 8 and 9 at the Wentworth Gallery in Schaumburg’s Woodfield Mall, where her paintings of rock stars, animals and Alice in Wonderland are for sale. Slick talked about her art and her musical career in a recent conversation from her home in Malibu, Calif.

Q: Is it true that you were born in Evanston?

A: Or Highland Park. And I literally don’t know which. The hospital record says one thing, and the birth certificate says another thing, and both my parents are dead. I was only 2½ when I left, so I don’t remember Chicago. The first town I remember is L.A. I’m pretty much a California girl.

Q: Did you read Alice in Wonderland as a kid?

A: Yeah, I identified heavily with it all throughout my life. The ’50s in this country were real straight, very rigid. We decided to live the way we wanted to live in the ’60s. But that’s a big jump. It’s very much like Alice being from very straight Victorian times, going down the rabbit hole into Wonderland.

Q: How did you develop your singing style?

A: I’m very loud, so I was born for rock ’n’ roll. I have a range of about four notes, and they’re all real loud.

Q: It sounds like you were pretty uninhibited when you were on stage with the band.

A: Well, yeah. That’s called being drunk, actually. Liquor will do that. It will make you real loose. At that time, in the ’60s, whatever you did, except for killing people, was OK.

Q: When did that change?

A: I don’t know, because I kept right on doing it, and other people stopped. I was 36, 37, and the highway patrol’s chasing me around, and I’m thinking, “Boy, I’m all alone doing this. My friends are getting old.” Well, no, it’s just that they stopped because you’re going to die if you keep behaving that way.

My idea of hell is having no car in California. So the only thing to get me to stop using drugs was the highway patrol saying, “OK, we’re going to take your license away if you don’t cut this out.”

Q: You retired from performing live music in 1989. Did you just feel like it was time?

A: Yeah, I don’t like old people on a rock ’n’ roll stage. I think they look silly.

Q: When did the art begin?

A: I was (feeling) sad, and I drew a bunch of animals, because I like animals. They make me happy. And I put them up all over my walls where I live in Laurel Canyon.

My book agent said, “I know you can draw. I’ve seen these pictures of animals. I want you to draw two rock ’n’ roll people.” I said, “No, that’s too corny.” She said, “Just two, for the book.” So I did. And I found that I actually enjoyed it. These people are interesting, that I’m drawing. They’re multifaceted, they’re very talented, they’re flamboyant. And so I kept on doing it.

Q: Are you still doing art inspired by Lewis Carroll?

A: Yes. The various characters can represent political, social ideas very well. The song “White Rabbit” was written at the parents. … Our parents were bitching at us about, “Why do you take these drugs?” while they’re sitting there with a glass of Scotch, right?

With the Red Queen, (Carroll) was making fun of their government at the time, but it goes for George Bush. The heads of state generally do what they want and the people suffer. The Red Queen’s army was a deck of cards. And she’d scream, “Off with their head.” It seemed nonsensical in the book, and it seems nonsensical now — to go over into Iraq and to start killing people, and stir it up so it’s even worse than it was before we went in.

There’s a reason why that story is very popular. I feel that the white rabbit represents her curiosity. She’s a bright little girl and she follows her curiosity. She does it all by herself. And your curiosity, as the white rabbit was, is always just a little bit ahead of you. You look at where your mind wants to go, and most people go, “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly do that.” Well, yeah, you can.

When you get to be old, it’s not what you did that you regret, it’s what you didn’t do. I didn’t do Peter O’Toole and Jimi Hendrix. And I didn’t learn how to ride a horse. Those three things I regret.

Q: Whenever rock stars or actors paint, some people say they’re just getting attention because they’re already famous. Do you ever hear people saying that about you?

A: I’m sure they do, just not to my face. A lot of musicians paint and a lot of actors paint, and a lot of painters play guitar. I mean, it’s all the same part of the brain. Now, you don’t want me doing your accounting, because that’s a different part of the brain.

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This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on May 9, 2007.

Fifty years after she first hit the country and rock charts, singer Wanda Jackson is winning over a whole new generation of fans.

Jackson played alongside Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1950s, arguably becoming the first woman to sing rock music. She never stopped recording and touring, though she shifted to gospel music in the 1970s. Now in the midst of a comeback, she’ll perform a concert at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn Friday, including her classic songs as well as the Presley cover tunes she recorded on her most recent album, “I Remember Elvis.”

She talked about her career last week in a phone interview.

Q: Are you surprised that young fans know your songs from the ’50s?

A: Here in America, I didn’t know all these rockabilly fans were here. I didn’t know all these venues, until I recorded with Rosie Flores and we did a tour together. Fans were asking for songs that I hadn’t sung in years. One night after one show, there came this young man and he handed me an envelope. He said, “Inside are the lyrics to ‘Mean, Mean Man’ so you can start singing it.”

Q: Elvis Presley was the one who encouraged you to start singing rockabilly?

A: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I was touring with him … As we became friends and became better acquainted, he began telling me he thought I should try this new kind of music — because he thought I could do it. I don’t know how he knew that, because I sure didn’t know it.

Q: How did you make the switch from country to rockabilly?

A: Elvis did take me to his home. We played records, and he had his guitar and was singing — you know, kind of giving me an idea for the feel.

It was very hard to find songs because no one was writing rock-type songs for girls — because there weren’t any girls singing. I was the first one. So I began writing quite a few of my own. “Mean, Mean Man” was one of the first that I wrote and recorded of my own things.

Q: Did you have a particular mean man in mind when you wrote it?

A: Not really, no. That’s the title that my Dad came up with. I thought it was a cute idea.

Q: Did you know right away that Elvis was something special?

A: I knew that he was special. I’d never seen anybody be able to do with an audience what he was able to do — just walking out onstage, before he even sang a note. I was quite amazed. I learned from working with him and watching him. I learned not to take myself serious. He just kind of played and flirted with his audience — collectively, as if they were one person. And I’ve been able to do that, too.

He’s been very helpful to me and my career. Of course, I had his ring that I wore.

Q: You were his girlfriend for a time?

A: Well, I think I was. He asked me to be his girl. Apparently, for a while there, I was.

Q: Tell me about the time you played on the Grand Ole Opry.

A: I was wearing clothes different than any other girl. I was always sort of out there on a limb. That’s where I liked it. So when I was invited to come to the Opry, I designed a special dress and Mother made it. When I started designing my own glamorous and sexy styles, she was able to make them — and make them fit me like a glove.

I was waiting to go onstage, and Ernest Tubbs came backstage to see if I was ready. I was standing there in my new dress with my guitar on. And he said, “Well, you can’t go the stage at the Opry with this dress.”

I said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

He said, “Women can’t show their shoulders on the stage of the Opry.”

I said, “I wasn’t told that. I knew nothing about it.”

He said, “Well, it can’t be helped, you can’t go on like that, and you’re on after this song.”

So I was really pressured. I went back to the dressing room and got a jacket I had worn, and put it on, and went onstage in tears. I was so unhappy and mad and upset.

I didn’t like anything about working at the Grand Ole Opry. I had always listened to it and was proud that I was going to be on, but the way that it was handled — the people behind you upstaging you. I told Daddy I wouldn’t ever go back. And I didn’t.

Q: A lot of people are saying you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A: Yeah, that seems to be the consensus. There’s all kinds of hall of fames, and I’m in a bunch of them, but I don’t have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is really quite ridiculous, because I was the first girl to do it.

Photo by Robert Loerzel

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This review by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on May 31, 2007.

Iago is one of literature’s greatest villains, and a new production of “Othello” shows this infamous schemer as a fascinating and charismatic agent.

John Judd’s performance as Iago at Writers’ Theatre is so remarkable that, at times, one thinks this play should be called “Iago,” not “Othello.” Thankfully, this production, directed by Michael Halberstam, also features a top-rate turn by James Vincent Meredith as the title character.

This superb production is the first Shakespeare play in 10 years at Writers’ Theatre, and it makes a strong case for the Glencoe theater to take on the Bard’s work more often. The essence of “Othello” is Iago whispering his nefarious lies in Othello’s ears, and this small venue is the perfect place to make an audience feel like it is eavesdropping on private moments.

In the opening scenes, as Iago begins plotting a complex plot of revenge against the Moor general Othello, Iago does not seem especially evil in Judd’s portrayal. Certainly, he is planning to commit dastardly deeds, but it also appears that he is merely doing what he thinks needs to be done — and going about it as efficiently as possible.

Iago himself is a fabulous actor, persuading all of those around him that he’s honest and noble when he’s actually a Machiavellian manipulator. Judd masterfully pulls off Iago’s two-faced nature, putting on such an honest face during his moments of deception that one can almost forget it’s all a ploy. Judd’s Iago then takes delicious pleasure as he turns toward the audience with cocked eyebrows or a twirl of the hands, reveling in the mischief that’s he creating.

In the play’s first half, Meredith plays Othello with a deep sense of pride and confidence. And then, as Iago begins to plant seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind and Othello begins to wonder if his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful, Meredith’s eyes stare off at distant points. Othello is searching his memory and his soul.

When Othello becomes convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him, Meredith vividly captures his character’s violent emotional turmoil. Meredith makes Othello’s dramatic about-face — his turn from adoring love for Desdemona to murderous jealousy — believable.

With a starkly geometrical set by Keith Pitts and elegant costumes by Nan Zabriskie, this version of “Othello” also features noteworthy supporting performances.

Played by Suzanne Lang, Desdemona is so pure of heart that Othello’s eventual rage against her feels all the more tragic. Braden Moran plays Othello’s lieutenant, Cassio, as a flawed but good-minded man who unwittingly allows himself to become one of Iago’s pawns. Audrey Francis makes a hilarious impression in the small role of Bianca. Playing two characters, Kevin Gudahl is particularly moving in his first-act role as Desdemona’s distraught father, Brabantio.

And we would be remiss in failing to mention Karen Janes Woditsch, an outstanding actress who has distinguished herself with wry humor and believable emotions in several plays over the last few years at Writers’ Theatre, Northlight and the Goodman.

In “Othello,” she plays Iago’s wife, Aemilia. Woditsch plays her early scenes with delightful comic timing, and then she becomes the voice of the play’s conscience in the final act.

The depth of Iago’s evil is undeniable by the tragic climax. But while it’s possible to see Iago as a symbol of Othello’s own worst impulses — or as the devil himself — Judd makes it plausible to trace Iago’s deeds back to believable, if terrible, human motives. As Iago asks in a soliloquy, “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?”

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