On a recent tour stop in Los Angeles, jazz great Bobby McFerrin spent some time with me at the glitzy J.W. Marriott in downtown L.A. recently to talk music, improvisation and tech. While tech isn’t necessarily one of his favorite subjects, he did warm to the idea that his 1988 hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” has taken on a new life online, with dozens of parodies and covers.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to see McFerrin live, get out there and check him out. There’s nobody out there like him. His vocal gymnastics are just amazing. McFerrin is all over Europe in June
Meanwhile, check out the USA TODAY #TalkingYourTech interview, below.
1:50 of 14 of my greatest #USATODAY #Talking Tech and #Talking Your Tech hits–thanks Mike Huckabee, the desert, Savannah Guthrie, Lewis Black, Brian Williams, Gus, Dr. Phil and the rest of the gang for the fun!
I spent much of Tuesday spreading the word about my dad’s untimely death on the eve of his pending April 30th 79th birthday. I spoke with friends and family, and reporters who wanted to know more about Jerry Graham, the former host of San Francisco’s “Bay Area Backroads.” What was he like as a father? Favorite memories?
(Our last photo together–November 2012, in the NY subway station.)
So here we go:
Father always knew best, and I mean that. Whatever the situation, his take was the right one. He was Jerry Graham, always the smartest, smoothest guy in the room, the one who could start a conversation with anyone and make it interesting, have them laughing and enjoying the company. We are non-religious people, but we always talked about his “angel.” He could always find a parking spot, get the best jobs, retire early, eat great food without getting fat, continue to play basketball at age 78!–every Sunday. Thanks to the angel.
He was the best writer I’ve ever seen–he could take difficult subjects and make them clear, witty and very entertaining. His early TV career taught him how to ad lib on the spot–and work a room.
(Performing with grandkids, Lily and Jeff at 50th birthday party, 2006. Jez is out of camera range.)
So, if I was to ask my dad for his take on anything, the response was always smart and right on. I think his amazing ease at what he did rubbed off on me. We never talked about me following in his footsteps as a journalist, because we both fell into it. He was a radio executive when I was growing up; by the time I became a newspaper reporter, he was a TV star in the Bay area. I do believe that watching him be so good at anything he wanted to do–whether it be picking up a new TV career in his 50s after two decades of radio management, continuing to play basketball in his 70s, when other sane humans would hang it up, or keeping thin, despite being an ardent foodie, rubs off. If he can do it, so can I.
(Jerry and the boys–Jez and Jeff, in Hermosa Beach, 2011.)
He was supportive, interested and easy to talk to. We laughed a lot. He liked to laugh. He got ousted from an early job for having a laughing fit on air, and the fits continued through the years. There were many instances where the laughter was contagious, and we just laughed and laughed, uncontrollable, with tears, falling on the floor.
Here’s what happened in Bingampton: He was looking for a way to spruce up the “Atlantic Weather” and asked a co-worker to offer his two hands. He would do the weather with four hands, the man standing behind him and making gestures. Then, when the red light went off, my dad starting laughing hysterically, and couldn’t stop. The next morning he was stripped of his weather duties, and so he quit. (With a young wife and two children at home. His father, a junk dealer in Indianapolis, couldn’t make sense of that.)
In later years, nothing out of the ordinary would spark the laughing fits–just he’d start, and it was then impossible not to jump in. The photo below is of a group photo at a family reunion in Brooklyn. Something one of the guys said got him going, and the yucks started.
Jerry grew up in Indiana, played sports most afternoons and weekends and married his childhood sweetheart, Judy. They wed in 1955, while Jerry was at Indiana University in Bloomington, and I was born in 1956, when my mom was just 19.
(Jerry and Judy in Indiana.)
We moved to New York City in the early 1960s, and they lived the glam life shown on “Mad Men.” His station, WNEW, was the soundtrack of all that was great about the city–Frank and Dean, Steve and Edyie, William B. Williams and the “Make Believe Ballroom.” As children, we grew up on the great comedies from the Marx Bros. W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton, and we would watch them together on TV and at local revival houses. The Thalia. The New Yorker. The Bleeker St. Cinema. We ate a lot of chocolate and ice cream. We both had our eagle eyes set on the dinner plate to see if younger brother Jimmy had a moment where he would take his hand away–who would be first to grab the leftovers? Growing up in the 1960s, we listened to lots of show tunes and sang them together (“Trouble” from “The Music Man” was one of his specialties–he knew all the words by heart) until the rock era came in, and his sons grooved to Jimi Hendrix (“noise,” he called it at first) Elton John and the Allman Brothers. He started to grow his hair–like the gang on “Mad Men,” and get with the rock and roll. Eventually, he started a rock station in Pittsfield, Mass., WGRG, where he served as station manager, newsman (he did daily commentaries) and DJ (he did a weekend music show.) I worked at the station in my late teens, primarily in advertising sales, and also wrote and produced commercials and did a weekend DJ stint.
WGRG was the first news outlet to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation for Watergate. His little tiny station in the Berkshires won a Sigma Delta Chi award for outstanding editorial work.
(Jerry and parents Lilian and Dave Granowsky, circa 1977, in Tiburon, Ca.)
The times–drugs, sex, politics, etc., took their toll on my parents, and they split up when he got the offer to leave Pittsfield for a new life in San Francisco at KSAN.
(At KSAN with the one and only Mel Brooks)
It was in San Francisco where he eventually met Catherine. After his second TV career came to an end, they moved to start anew in Santa Cruz, where Catherine had attended UC. They were married for 27 years and pillars of the Santa Cruz community. He loved being a father the second time around with Lily. Jerry and Catherine appeared to be very happy. As she noted to me this week: “I’ve lost the love of my life.”
Jerry Graham wasn’t perfect. He could be prickly and selfish. If I had a request, it could be met–or not. There were lots of disappointments.
Being Jerry Graham’s son wasn’t easy. Being Jerry Graham’s son who happened to be the spitting image of (22 years younger) Jerry Graham made it harder. Let’s face it–Frank Sinatra, Jr. didn’t look like ol’ Blue Eyes. Chris Wallace didn’t totally resemble Mike.
I’d walk into a restaurant and people would call me “Jerry.” (Ok, one person, cousin Adele–but you get the point.)
He lived the Paul Anka song. He lived life his way, on his terms.
(With Chicolini and Catherine, in Santa Cruz, 2011.)
(Our only time professionally together on camera, from 2008, in Jerry’s office)
At home in Santa Cruz, this is what he loved to do:
Program his Dish Network DVR and watch stuff. I think he enjoyed the process of going through the guide to compile programs even more than he liked to watch.
He taped old movies, the evening news, interesting cable TV shows (Daily Show, Colbert, Louis CK) a lot of basketball games–with the playoffs on now, he was in heaven.
He brought Chicolini out to the dog park once a day, and for a walk in the neighborhood.
He’d read the paper in the morning, go to the gym, eat lunch, take a nap, read magazines and books, walk the dog, and start preparing dinner. Then it was a night of shared TV with Catherine. In the Sentinel obit, she noted that he liked to sing her a different song every morning. This one I never knew, but shows again about the angel–this was one happy dude.
The Last Weekend
We had two great trips in 2012. He came to L.A. to attend the launch party in July for my then new book, and then traveled to NY to visit me and daughter Lily (a student at Columbia University) when I appeared at Photo Plus. It was quite a week that just happened to coincide with Hurricane Sandy. I was touched he made the second trip–and that he went out of his way to do it on my schedule, when I was going to be there. It was out of character.
For some reason, I had decided that I had to go to Santa Cruz this weekend and spend last weekend for a visit. I couldn’t be there for the birthday, so I’d celebrate on the weekend. It had been six months, and 79 was getting closer to 80, so you just never know.
I left Friday morning, arrived at 5, and we went out to pick up the fabulous chocolate ice cream birthday cake from Cold Stone Creamery on Pacific Street. Who knew it would be his last?
The next morning, he told me he hadn’t slept well, but that didn’t stop him from taking a vigorous 90 minute walk through the Chaminade resort trails in Santa Cruz. We followed up with lunch–he had a Tri-Tip sandwich, and then he returned home for a nap. I left, returned back 2 hours later, and set up my video camera for oral history. This was something he had always resisted doing before–though he had allowed me to do it once in 2008, but this time he was surprisingly easy. “Are you sure we shouldn’t do it tomorrow?” he did say. “My voice isn’t 100%.”
He had taken a drink the day before that didn’t agree with him.
(The 5 Granowskys in Indiana, late 1930s. That’s Jerry in front.)
I said no, let’s do it now. I asked him questions about growing up in Indiana, the family dynamic, listening to radio in the living room, going to movies for 10 cents every weekend and his early days in live local TV. It was quite a life, from another era, and I was always eager to soak up as much of it as I could. I was surprised that in this interview, he told me several things I had never heard him say before, which again proves why it’s so important for us to record our family histories. Direct conversations produce much more info, which in my case, is now so priceless. Look at it both ways–I only have two hours of memories. But I have two hours of memories!
We had dinner–he made salad and chicken, and we watched TV–a really awful edition of NBC’s Smash, easily the worst ever, which he commented on. Afterwards, Catherine went upstairs to bed, and he watched quick takes on the basketball playoffs.
Then, from the couch, he started complaining that he was getting light-headed and “fainting,” but nothing to be concerned of.
I asked if he wanted help going upstairs to the bedroom. He declined, said he’d be fine.
So I left, and went back to the motel.
The next morning he called–”Dr. Quackenbush here!” at 8:20 and said he was feeling fine.
I came over, we talked a bit, and he said that since he was about to turn 79, it would be that much closer to 80, so a few things I should know.
He didn’t want a funeral. He wanted to be cremated. If he should get sick and needed to be resuscitated, he didn’t want to be.
“Not that I’m going anywhere,” he said. “I plan on being around another 15-20 years.”
I figured a good 10 at least. My dad was superman. Basketball, tennis, daily gym, vigorous walks–how could he not live to at least 90? His dad made it to 86, and he ate terrible food and got no exercise.
Jerry did say he’d had two “fainting” spells–including one at the gym, where the medics arrived to bring him to the hospital, but he refused to go. He didn’t want to be opened up and had one of those instances where you walk in, but never walk out.
He had seen his heart specialist, and always checked out. “Perhaps we need to change the meds,” he said.
I thought all the end of life talk was morbid, and tried to think nothing of it. I said goodbye, and that I would be back on June 10th–Apple Developer Conference around the corner!–and left to make the long drive home.
I sent him an e-mail on Monday, and he wrote back at 1 p.m.
Screen grab from last interview. 4 p.m. Saturday. He would be dead 48 hours later.
That evening, Catherine called to tell me she had come home to find him dead on the floor, of an apparent heart attack.
So, he was in pain all weekend, and knew this was it. He wasn’t willing to go out as a vegetable. Like “Seinfeld,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and countless other TV series, he wanted to go out on the top of his game.
It’s rough for the rest of the family, but he went out with just 3 days of pain. And then it was all over.
But the memories linger on. Forever.