We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say

I was only 11, so I didn’t really understand what was happening.  I was pretty much a pawn in the show business game of foisting a product upon an unsuspecting public.

It was September 1966, and overnight, I became a huge fan of a prefabricated rock band called The Monkees.

“They’re going to be bigger than The Beatles!” I told my skeptical parents.  “They even have their own weekly TV show!”

This was just what the show’s producers were counting on — gullible American teens and pre-teens buying into the sanitized Hollywood vision of what a rock band should look p01bqr6vlike and sound like:  Four zany young guys with dreams of making it big, making their way through one silly weekly adventure after the next, always finding a way to work in at least one “performance” of one of their songs that were being heard concurrently on Top 40 radio.

And it worked.  For a while.

The half-hour NBC-TV show “The Monkees” was an instant hit in the ratings and, at the Emmy Awards nine months later, scored an upset by winning Outstanding Comedy Series, triumphing over shows with far better credentials like “Bewitched,” “Get Smart,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”

On the Billboard Pop charts, the first songs and albums released by The Monkees all The_Monkees_single_02_I'm_a_Believerwent to #1 and stayed there for many weeks on end.  “I’m a Believer” was the #1 song in the nation for nearly three months.  Here’s a fact that still astonishes me today:  Year-end sales figures for 1967 show that more units of Monkees records were sold than The Beatles and The Rolling Stones combined!

But there was a fly in the ointment that soon derailed this runaway success.  When the public learned that the band members weren’t really playing the instruments on the records they were hearing or on the TV performances they were seeing, there was a backlash from which they never fully recovered.  Critics pounced, calling The Monkees “The Pre-Fab Four,” a derisive take on The Beatles’ “Fab Four” nickname.  The TV show lasted only one more season through continually sagging ratings, and was cancelled in the summer of 1968.

There were six commercially huge hit singles between September 1966 and March 1968 that cemented The Monkees’ name in pop music history.  “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” all reached at least #3, with four of them topping the charts.  They’re so ingrained in my head that I could sing you every word of these songs right now, today.  But then the bottom fell out, with each successive single faring worse through 1968 and 1969, and by 1970, the jig was up.

In retrospect, the case can be made that the four individuals who comprised the band — Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork — were just as much pawns in the show business game as anybody.  They were hired not as musicians but as comic actors playing the roles of musicians in a TV sitcom.

themonkees1960Producer Bob Rafelson had come up with the concept of a TV show about a rock and roll group as early as 1960, but it wasn’t until The Beatles’ spectacular arrival and, more specifically, the success of their film “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964 that Rafelson got the green light from Screen Gems, the TV arm of Columbia Pictures, to develop his idea.  At first he thought of using an existing pop band to star in the program, but after being turned down by The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Dave Clark Five, he decided to manufacture his own group.

Rafelson concluded that Jones, whose Broadway acting pedigree had already won him a contract with Screen Gems and Columbia as an actor/singer, would be an ideal choice for this project, bringing a charming Brit-pop sensibility.  The rest of the group would be found through auditions, just as was done with any other TV show at the time.

This was the ad copy that ran in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter:  “Madness!  Auditions.  Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series.  Running parts for four insane boys age 17-21.”

Many rock music fans may not be aware that among the hundreds of hungry young musician/actor wanna-bes who showed up for the cattle-call audition was a young

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Stills (left) soon after declining a Monkees audition in 1966

singer-songwriter named Stephen Stills.  “I went in there to sell my songs.  I told them, ‘I have all these songs.’  They said, ‘Oh, that part of it has already been taken care of.’  I said, ‘What, you’ve got some Tin Pan Alley people writing your songs?’  And they said ‘Yeah.’  I said, ‘Well, I don’t want the job, but I know a guy you might like.’  I was already writing songs and looking to form a band.  I had zero interest in being a damn fake Beatle on television.”

But Stills’ guitarist friend Peter Tork was interested, and he ended up winning one of the three remaining parts, along with Dolenz, a former child actor who had starred in the inconsequential 1950s sitcom “The Circus Boy.”  Rounding out the quartet was Nesmith, a competent songwriter/guitarist with a droll sense of humor and a keen business sense inherited from his mother, a secretary who had invented “Liquid Paper” correction fluid and built it into a multi-million-dollar company.

The foursome did what was asked of them, learning their lines and playing their parts on the show, but when they showed up at the recording studio, Nesmith and Tork were chagrined to learn their musical skills would not be needed.  Dolenz and Jones were 51YH7+LFxFLtapped to dub lead vocal parts onto the finished tracks.  The show’s musical supervisor was the notorious Don Kirshner, who had selected Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart from his stable of Brill Building pop songwriters to write, record and produce most of the songs for the group’s first album, “The Monkees,” which was essentially intended as a companion soundtrack to the TV show’s first season.

The first sign of trouble, as far as Nesmith was concerned, was when that debut LP appeared.  “The first album showed up and I looked at it with horror, because it made us appear as if we were a bonafide rock ‘n’ roll band.  There was no credit given for the other musicians who actually played on the tracks.  I went completely ballistic, and said, ‘What are you people thinking?’  And the powers that be said, ‘Well, you know, it’s the fantasy.’  I said, ‘It’s not the fantasy.  You’ve crossed the line here.  You are now duping the public.  They know when they look at the television series that we’re not a rock ‘n’ roll band; it’s a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band.  Nobody for a minute believes that we are somehow this accomplished rock ‘n’ roll band that got their own television show.  You putting the record out like this is just beyond the pale.'”

Kirshner, irritated at Nesmith’s objections, plowed ahead, assembling a dozen more  tracks recorded in the same manner and releasing them a mere three months later as the second LP “More of The Monkees.”  Despite the fact that the album was a big commercial hit, Nesmith and the other Monkees had reached their breaking point about what they 02-more-of-the-monkeesfelt was nothing short of fraud.  Kirshner was ousted and The Monkees won creative control of all recordings from then on.

On those initial two dozen recordings, the musical parts were handled largely by the seasoned pros who made up what was known in some circles as The Wrecking Crew.  Some names you might recognize:  guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Louie Shelton; pianist Larry Knechtel (who later joined the soft-rock band Bread); drummer Hal Blaine; bassist Carol Kaye; percussionist Jim Gordon.  Also contributing were Carole King, who wrote “Sometime in the Morning” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and added piano and backing vocals, and Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” and added guitar.

It’s kind of unfair that The Monkees were singled out for not playing much on their own records.  Truth be told, this wasn’t all that different from what occurred with other hip groups of the period.  On several of the big hits released by The Beach Boys (“I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Good Vibrations”) and The Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”), the drums, bass, guitar and keyboard parts were played by Wrecking Crew session guys because the record label executives didn’t yet have confidence in the band members’ musical abilities.

Glenn Baker, author of “Monkeemania: The True Story of the Monkees,” put his finger on the real problem that tarnished The Monkees’ image, even to this day:  “The rise of the ‘Pre-fab Four’ coincided with rock’s desperate desire to cloak itself with the trappings of respectability and credibility.  Session players were being heavily employed by many acts of the time, but what could not be ignored, as rock disdained its pubescent past, was a group of middle-aged Hollywood businessmen had actually assembled their concept of a profitable rock group and foisted it upon the world.  What mattered was that the Monkees had success handed to them on a silver plate.  Indeed, it was not so much righteous indignation but thinly disguised jealousy which motivated the scornful dismissal of what 1714899-davy-jones-the-monkees-on-set-617-409-1must, in retrospect, be seen as an entertaining, imaginative and highly memorable exercise in pop culture.”

From my point of view as a teen in 1966-67, The Monkees were definitely entertaining.  My friends and I held instruments and pretended to be Monkees in school skits, aping their movements and lip-synching their lyrics.  The TV show offered half-hour escapes of mindless fun each Monday evening.  Most of the controversy surrounding their legitimacy was, frankly, just not important to me at the time.

The hard-fought freedom The Monkees won to control their recorded output was complicated by the fact that they didn’t share a common vision regarding the band’s musical direction.  Nesmith favored leaning toward country rock and country blues.  Jones fancied the more showy Broadway-type music, while Tork and Dolenz enjoyed dabbling in psychedelia and other more avant-garde genres.  Still, they understood the 03-headquartersneed to maintain some continuity to what their young fan base expected, which was straightforward pop with accessible hooks.

Their 1967 singles “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “Daydream Believer” are still enormously popular today, but their third and fourth LPs, “Headquarters” and “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.,” exemplified the group’s inner 04-pisces-aquarius-capricorn-and-jones-ltdturmoil and rudderless direction (although both nevertheless reached #1 on the album charts).  By the time of the fifth LP, “The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees,” the TV show had been cancelled, and the experimental film and soundtrack they released in November 1968, “Head,” proved disastrous commercially.  Tork left the band, and efforts to continue as a threesome failed.  The end had come.

It’s interesting to note that both The Monkees’ music and TV show are now regarded with more respect than at their time of release.  If you analyze some of the TV episodes, you’ll find, amidst the silliness, some groundbreaking creativity.  During an era of formulaic domestic sitcoms and corny comedies, it was a stylistically ambitious show, with a distinctive visual style and tempo, an absurdist sense of humor and almost radical story structure.  It utilized quick edits strung together with interview segments and even occasional documentary footage.

When Nesmith asked John Lennon in 1967 what he thought of The Monkees, he said, only partly in jest, “I think you’re the greatest comic talent since The Marx Brothers.  I’ve

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Winning the Outstanding Comedy Emmy in 1967

never missed one of your programs.”

It rarely gets the credit for it, but The Monkees’ show was one of the essential pioneers of the music video format, and Nesmith himself later dreamed up and pitched the prototype for what became MTV, the game-changing phenomenon of music delivery in the 1980s.

Writing in 2012 at the time of Jones’ death, columnist James Poniewozik said, “Even if the show never meant to be more than harmless entertainment and a hit-single generator, we shouldn’t sell it short.  It was far better TV than it had to be.  In fact, ‘The Monkees’ was the opening salvo in a revolution that brought on the New Hollywood cinema, an influence rarely acknowledged but no less impactful.  As a pop culture phenomenon, The Monkees paved the way for just about every boy band that followed in their wake, from New Kids on the Block to ‘N Sync to the Jonas Brothers, while Davy set the stage for future teen idols David Cassidy and Justin Bieber.  You would be hard pressed to find a successful artist who didn’t take a page from The Monkees’ playbook, even generations later.”

In 2009, Jones said, “We touched a lot of musicians, you know.  I can’t tell you the amount of people that have come up and said, ‘I wouldn’t have been a musician if it hadn’t been for the Monkees.’ It baffles me even now.  I met a guy from Guns N’ Roses who was just so complimentary of our work.”

Numerous Monkees revival tours have been met with huge, adoring crowds, mostly aging Sixties kids looking for nostalgic memories.  When MTV re-aired the TV show in the late ’80s, a new generation of fans hopped on The Monkees’ train.  New albums in 1987 (“Pool It!”) and again in 1996 (“Justus”) weren’t commercial or critical successes, but they served their purpose of keeping The Monkees name before the public.  Tours image_update_10317dd6223b6aa7_1343571076_9j-4aaqskusually featured only three of the four principals (either Nesmith or Tork holding out), but that didn’t seem to matter to those who bought tickets to see them.

Many middle-aged women wept in 2012 when their teen idol Davy Jones died of a heart attack at age 66.  Social media activity was substantial and brought about increased sales of Monkees material.  Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith collaborated once more on the praised 2016 album “Good Times!” which features several tracks I find worthy of your attention (“You Bring the Summer, “Me & Magdelena”), and even an unearthed track from 1967 (“Love to Love”) on Unknown-35which Jones sang lead vocals.

Just last week, Peter Tork died of cancer at age 77, which will most likely spell the end of Monkees performances…but you never know.  If the twosome of Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey can keep The Who alive in 2019, what’s stopping Nesmith and Dolenz from doing the same thing with The Monkees?

I’m envisioning an upcoming promotional poster:  “Hey Hey, we’re still The Monkees, damnit!”

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I’ve compiled a playlist on Spotify that collects the essential Monkees hits and many additional album tracks I’ve always enjoyed.  I hope you like “A Barrelful of Monkees”!

 

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Pour myself a cup of ambition

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the 50-year career of a woman who has managed to shine in multiple disciplines:  songwriting, singing, recording, films, television, entertainment businesses and philanthropic endeavors — Dolly Parton.

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“I’ve never been offended by all the dumb blonde jokes people tell about me.  You know why?  It’s because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know I’m not blonde.”

SDEEUR3US434LJWCR55D3OUGBEThis famous Dolly Parton quote succinctly captures her essence:  Keen self-awareness.  Honest humility.  Positive attitude.  A wonderful sense of humor.

If you’re looking for proof that Dolly Parton is not a “dim bulb,” as she might put it, there’s a revealing story about what happened — or what could have happened but didn’t — with one of her most famous songs.

In 1973, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which was meant as a fond tribute to her friend and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, with whom she was amicably ending a seven-year professional collaboration.  Dolly recorded it herself, and then watched as it soared to #1 on the Hot Country charts (although it didn’t even make the Pop charts).

Elvis Presley let it be known that he loved the song and wanted to do his own version.  He was all set to record it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton that it was customary for songwriters to give up half of the publishing rights to Presley for any song he recorded.  While others had gladly relented just to have Elvis sing their song, Parton politely declined.

Dolly recalls, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it,’ and I cried all night.  I mean, it was like the worst thing.  You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley.’  And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’  But I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ Something in my heart said, ‘Don’t do that.’  And I just didn’t do it… Of course, he would MV5BOGIwZmIyOTctOWU1Mi00NzYwLWI4ZjQtNjAwZGQzZjBhZmU4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQ5MDYzMTk@._V1_have done a killer rendition…but anyway, so he didn’t.  Then, when Whitney Houston’s version came out years later, I made so much money from it, I could’ve bought Graceland!”

Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” released in 1992 on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard,” spent an incredible 14 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts, bringing the song to an exponentially wider mainstream audience than Parton’s original had achieved.  It played a large part in turning her into one of the wealthiest songwriters in music history (current estimates put her in the $500 million range).

And that’s merely the most famous of more than 3,000 (!) songs she has written since breaking into show business in 1967, earning her a much-deserved spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  “Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts,” Parton has said.  “Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. I think my head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”

Full confession:  I’ve never been much of a country music fan myself.  Consequently, my knowledge of and appreciation for Parton’s recorded catalog has until recently been limited to her most well-known songs, particularly 1977’s “Here You Come Again” (the engaging Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune that marked her first appearance in the mainstream Top Ten), her perky 1981 #1 international hit “9 to 5” from the hit film comedy, and “Islands in the Stream,” the frankly icky 1983 chart-topping duet with Kenny Rogers.

71-+fobEsRL._SX355_Now that my two daughters have become big fans of country artists, I’ve been compelled, somewhat grudgingly, to give the genre more attention.  Although I suspect I’ll always be a rock and roll guy at heart, I have broadened my horizons to examine and eventually embrace many country songs, including several of Dolly’s.

It was only last year that I first heard “Jolene,” an irresistible 1973 tune she wrote about a gorgeous woman who had been making eyes at her new husband.  “Please don’t take him just because you can,” the lyrics implore, and that sentiment rang true with millions of country fans who sent it to #1 on the country charts.  Even Rolling Stone ranked “Jolene” #214 on its list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Beyond her voluminous recorded catalog of more than 50 solo albums and another dozen LPs with Wagoner, Parton has also impressed me with her film appearances, especially her hilarious debut in “9 to 5” and her award-winning turn as the madam in the-best-little-whorehouse-in-texas“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  As in nearly every television performance or interview you can find on YouTube, Parton absolutely lights ups the screen with her affable, cheery disposition.

No essay about Parton can omit mention of the breathtaking real estate Parton displays between her neck and her navel.  Even the normally discreet Johnny Carson was once moved to say to her, “I’d give up a year’s salary for one peek under your blouse!”

True to her self-deprecating nature, she has always taken such comments in stride, and now tells jokes of her own about her “substantial bosom,” as she calls it.  “I was one of the first women to burn my bra.  It took the fire department four days to put it out!”

Just like in the rock music business, the country music industry has many dozens of examples of singers whose light shone brightly for a few years and then petered out.  Parton is one of only a handful of country artists whose careers have lasted more than half a century.

While her biggest years of commercial success came in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she has been no slouch in the years since.  Since 1990, she has released 18 albums, all of which reached the Top Twenty on the country charts, and three of those — 1993’s “Slow Dancing With the Moon,” 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie” and 2014’s “Blue Smoke” — made the Top Ten on the Pop charts as well.

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Katy Perry (left) and Kacey Musgraves with Parton at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Just last week, Parton was named the MusiCares Person of the Year, the first country artist to be so honored, and the Grammy Awards also paid tribute to her, with rousing performances by current stars Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry and Maren Morris, and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and by Parton herself.

Still relevant today?  Damn right she is.

What a remarkable ride she has had — “from the back hills of Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills,” as she put it at the MusiCares ceremony.  She was one of 12 children born in a one-room cabin near the hardscrabble hamlet of Pittman Center in eastern Tennessee, where her father worked the land and her mother struggled to raise the

MV5BOTA4YjU4NGEtMDJkNS00NWQ0LThmNmQtYTZkYTc2MGRkNDA1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEwODg2MDY@._V1_

Avie Lee, Dolly, and Robert Parton

family while instilling in Dolly her love of music and folklore.  Raised in the Church of God where her grandfather pastored, Parton first sang in church at age 6 and started playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.

Appearances on local radio and TV programs eventually caught the eye of industry folks, and upon graduation from high school, she moved to Nashville and signed with Combine Publishing.  Several of her earliest compositions (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame”) became Top Ten country hits, and still others were recorded by major country names like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr.

Parton has always been reverential about these artists who so influenced her at an early age.  “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us now.  She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.  In addition to being a wonderful asset to country music, she was a wonderful woman.”

When Monument Records signed Dolly as a recording artist at age 20, it was initially as a bubblegum pop singer, but when that didn’t pan out, and her country songs achieved notoriety as covered by others, she was given the chance to record “Hello, I’m Dolly,” her debut as a country singer.  It didn’t take long for Wagoner, an established country star 170px-Porter_Wagoner_and_Dolly_Parton_1969with multiple #1 hits to his credit, to offer her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated TV gig “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which at its peak was reaching three million viewers in 100 markets.

As she and Wagoner scored big with a dozen collaboration albums during this period, Dolly aimed her ambitions higher, persevering in the face of reluctant record company people to record solo albums and establish a name for herself outside of her association with Wagoner.  To his credit, Wagoner supported her efforts, both financially and as a friend.

Her hard work paid off.  Between 1971 and 1991, Dolly Parton racked up a staggering total of 40 Top Ten country singles, including an incredible 22 chart-toppers!

Beginning in the 1990s, country music evolved from its purist roots to embrace a newer, more contemporary sound, one that utilized more rock arrangements, tempos and shutterstock_6498011a-46699850-e065-4bdb-a88c-afeaec0403cbinstruments.  Artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus packed the arenas and topped the charts while more traditional artists like Parton were left by the wayside, at least for a while.

Rock music fans should take note that Parton has occasionally stuck her toe into non-country music genres, with varying degrees of success.  Her well-received collaborative albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999) with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris included tracks like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and she has also recorded startling covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”  On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of her train-wreck renditions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” and Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and (shudder) a bluegrass arrangement of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Beginning in the late ’80s, Parton began focusing most of her attentions on establishing Dollywood, the amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the Dollywood Foundation, which supports and raises millions of dollars to help with educational and health-related charities, particularly in her home state of Tennessee.  “I always thought that if I became successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something dollyparton-bookcharity-480x270that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she said.

Particularly notable has been her literacy awareness program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sparked by her devotion to her father, who couldn’t read nor write.  The program seeks to instill a love for books and a yearn to learn how to read at a young age by donating one book every month to each enrolled child.  The Imagination Library was recently honored by the Library of Congress for donating its 100 millionth book.

“Everywhere I go these days, the kids call me ‘the book lady,'” Parton said.  “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the ‘book lady’ title.  It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer.  It makes me feel like I’ve done something really worthwhile with my life and with my success.”

Dolly-Parton-Husband-1Parton and her husband of 52 years, Carl Dean, have never had children.  “I’ve never been fortunate enough to get pregnant, so I just feel God didn’t mean for me to have kids,” said Parton.  “So I guess I just look at everybody else’s children as mine, and I reach out to help kids in every way I can.”

Meanwhile, this glitzy, big-haired, 73-year-old ball of fun and enthusiasm (“I’m just a Backwoods Barbie in a pushup bra and heels”) intends to keep at it, on stage and in the studio.  “I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural beauty, so I try to make the best of everything.”  She knows people kid her about her cosmetic surgery, but she just doesn’t care.  “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked!”

636689053099642487-kns-DollywoodExpansion-BP-13People say to her, “Why don’t you retire?” Her reply:  “And do what?  What does that even mean?  I always count my blessings more than I count my money.  For me, it’s about the art.  I love the job.  I love to work.”

Her voice has always been marked by a funny little wavering quality, and that vibrato has perhaps become more pronounced with age, at least in her lower vocal register (check out the songs on the recent “Dumplin'” soundtrack).  Nevertheless, she continues to command the respect and admiration of just about everyone who comes in contact with her.  Including me, apparently.

No doubt about it.  The woman is a living legend.