Monthly Archives: March 2011

Food: Apple Pie a la mode


To me, the best apple pie has a flaky crust, soft apples, and a scoop (or two) of vanilla ice cream. Uploaded to Flickr by photographer S.C. Asher.

On this, the second birthday of Great American Things, it’s time to ask this question: How did it take me two years to get around to featuring apple pie, the dessert that finishes the eternal phrase “As American as…”

Photo uploaded to Flickr by photographer xetark.

My wife makes a terrific apple pie. I hope you know someone who makes one like hers that makes your mouth water. And there’s only one thing that can make a great apple pie even better — and that’s a scoop (or two) of vanilla ice cream. No, not cinnamon ice cream. Don’t go making this some kind of fancy-schmancy dessert. It needs to be simple. Warm pie, cold ice cream. Maybe a glass of milk.

There are variations on apple pies; some people like cheese on them (never understood that), some like raisins (freaks). What you don’t want, is what I saw on a recipe at It started, “Tired of ordinary old apple pie?” NO! I’M NOT! And if it’s prepared right (cook those apples so they’re soft, people) I NEVER WILL BE!

Film: On the Waterfront


The film was based on a series of investigative articles by Malcolm Johnson in the New York Sun that won a Pulitzer Prize. Writer Budd Schulberg was fascinated by them, and used them as the skeleton of his screenplay. Uploaded to Photobucket by jedimoonshyne9.

Brando at his best. That’s really all you need to know to put On the Waterfront at the top of your “must-see” list. And it’s more than just the “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender” scene. It’s a story about the mob, and corruption, and loyalty.

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Like most great films, On the Waterfront has a terrific cast. In addition to Brando (did I mention this was him at his best?), the ensemble included Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint, and Rod Steiger. Just as important were the people behind the camera. Elia Kazan directed, Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay, and Leonard Bernstein composed the music. Not surprisingly, the film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 8, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay.

The legacy of the movie is evident in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100… series. It ranked number 8 in …100 Movies; Terry Malloy (Brando’s character) was number 23 hero in …100 Heroes and Villains; it earned number 22 in …100 Film Scores; and “I coulda been a contender” ranked number 3 in …100 Movie Quotes.

Person: Cesar Millan

Cesar Millan's program, The Dog Whisperer, debuted on the National Geographic Channel in 2004, and became the network's highest-rated show the first season. Uploaded by

Aren’t you fascinated by those people who know from a very young age what they want to do in life? Growing up in Mexico, Cesar Millan had such a way with dogs that he earned the nickname “The Dog Boy.” At the age of 13 he told his mother that he wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world.

Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic Channel.

So, he did what many others who want to be the very best do – he came to the United States. Illegally. I’m a bit ambivalent about honoring someone who took this route, but Millan learned English, took steps to become legal, and became a U.S. citizen in 2009. He created the Dog Psychology Center, where he sharpened his theories of mastering dogs by creating a calm energy, and making the dog’s owner its “pack leader.”

He pitched a television show — The Dog Whisperer — to the National Geographic Channel, and it became the network’s highest-rated program in its first season. The show has been nominated for an Emmy as Best Reality Program three times and has won a People’s Choice Award. While there are those in the animal community who dislike his methods, he received an award from the Humane Society of the United States for his work in rehabilitating animals.

Americana: Cheyenne Frontier Days


Frontier Days has been a part of Cheyenne since the end of the 19th century. It's not just rodeo, but a full range of activities and performances for the whole family. Uploaded by

You don’t have to love the sport of rodeo in order to enjoy Cheyenne Frontier Days. But it helps. Billing itself as “The Daddy of ’em All,” Frontier Days has been an annual mainstay of Cheyenne since its founding in 1897. Its rodeo competition is probably the largest of its kind in the country, and draws some 200,000 people during its run.

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But there’s plenty to do even if you don’t know a dogie from a doggie. There’s a large carnival midway with games and rides. There’s an Old West museum, a chuckwagon cookoff, a grand parade, an Indian village, free pancake breakfasts (yes, free), a Western art show, and a performance by Air Force Thunderbirds. And almost every night, a major musical act. The 2011 acts include Darius Rucker, Jason Aldean, Kid Rock, Mötley Crüe, The Charley Daniels Band, and Toby Keith.

The event is usually held over the last full week of July, so if you’d like to attend in 2011, that’s July 22-31. The capital of Wyoming has never become too “citified,” and it revels in everything Western during Frontier Days. So put on your cowboy boots and your Stetson, and enjoy a part of the country that most of us don’t know enough about. Cheyenne. Wyoming. The West.

Singers: The Rascals

The Young Rascals/Rascals had nine songs make the top 20, and three reached number 1 - Good Lovin', Groovin', and People Got to be Free. Uploaded by

Depending on when you first started listening to this band, you may either consider them a frenetic blue-eyed-soul group, or a mellow, almost jazz-influenced pop band. During their eight years together (1965-72), they were both. They even had two names that roughly correspond with their two eras. Initially, the band was The Young Rascals, then became just The Rascals in 1968.

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It was their soulful sound that first caught my attention when I heard “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” the band’s first single. Though it only made it to number 53 on the Billboard singles chart, it featured a distinctive sound and the promise of good things to come. Here’s a list of the band’s Top 20 singles, and the highest chart position for each:

  • “Good Lovin'” (1 – 1966)
  • “You Better Run” (20 – 1966)
  • “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” (16 – 1967)
  • “Groovin'” (1 – 1967)
  • “A Girl Like You” (10 – 1967)
  • “How Can I Be Sure” (4 – 1967)
  • “It’s Wonderful” (20 -1967)
  • “A Beautiful Morning” (3 -1968)
  • “People Got to be Free” (1 – 1968)

The Rascals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. To give you a feel for the group’s blues and mellow periods, here are a couple of videos. The first is a medley of “Mickey’s Monkey” and “Turn on Your Love Light.” Notice the great drumming by Dino Danelli. The second is the huge hit, “People Got to be Free.”

Music: The iPod


The iPod began a revolution in portable, cool music players. But it's now beyond music; you can store photos, watch videos, even play games on today's iPods. Uploaded by

Later this year, the iPod will celebrate its 10th birthday. Of all the products Apple has created that have changed our lives, none might be as revolutionary as this music player. It’s hard to imagine a world without a music player that will fit in your pocket, and yet until a decade ago you had to buy a CD and have the player with you. As it has done consistently, Apple changed everything.

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Of course, Apple has refined its breakthrough product, making it smaller and lighter while increasing its memory and usability. Now the iPod is a place to store photos, watch videos, even play games. And the technology has been incorporated into other Apple products, including the iPad and iPhone.

Another revolution the iPod helped create is the ability to build a music library a song at a time. Maybe you like one song on a CD, but don’t really care about the rest. Previously, you had to either buy the whole thing or do without. But now, you can buy just the songs you like, and customize your music library. I do, however, feel a little sorry for those who’ve grown up with this technology, taking it for granted. If you’ve lived, as I have, through the evolution of records to tapes to CDs, you have a much greater appreciation for the creative genius of Apple, and the wonder of the iPod.

TV Show: Sports Night


Sports Night was created and written by Aaron Sorkin. It only lasted on ABC for two seasons; the show could have moved to another network, but Sorkin chose to concentrate on another little project he had in the works - The West Wing. Uploaded by

I suppose I have to explain this selection more than most. After all, Sports Night isn’t one of those beloved TV classics, like The Andy Griffith Show (Great American Things, Feb. 12, 2011). Nor is it a cult favorite, such as Lost (Great American Things, Jan. 27, 2011). In fact, Sports Night only stayed on the air for two seasons (1998-2000), and never made the higher echelons of the Nielsen ratings.

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But I really love this show. As is usually the case, one of the reasons it’s so good is its cast. While Robert Guillaume was well-known thanks to such shows as Benson, Sports Night was my first exposure to some outstanding actors who are now more familiar in other roles. Peter Krause, for example, who had great success on Six Feet Under. Felicity Huffman, enjoying a long run on Desperate Housewives. And Josh Malina, who had a great part on The West Wing.

But the real reason to watch Sports Night was the writing, done by one of my favorites, Aaron Sorkin. He based the series in a fictional sports network, which was very smart. Unfortunately, by naming the series Sports Night, he inadvertently signaled to women that this was a show for guys. In reality, it was a funny and poignant series about friendships, and romance, and work, and appealed to both sexes equally. But as I used to mention it to female friends, most had never watched it – because the name put them off.

As of this writing, many of the episodes are available (in two or three parts) on YouTube. I’m going to link to one of my favorites, “Eli’s Coming.” If you enjoy it, another you’re sure to like is “Dear Louise” (Season 1, Episode 7).

Actress: Elizabeth Taylor


All those husbands. All those diamonds. All those rumors. All those Oscars and nominations. Uploaded by

Elizabeth Taylor lived such a tumultuous life that she attained a larger-than-life reputation. Married eight times to seven husbands (Richard Burton won the lottery twice), one of the highest-paid actresses of her time, a friend of man-child Michael Jackson – oh, and one of the finest screen performers of all time.

Taylor was born in England of American parents, so he had dual citizenship. After appearances in several mostly forgettable movies (well, who can forget Lassie Come Home), she became a true child star with her role as Velvet Brown in National Velvet. That was in 1944.

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During the next decade she made the transition from adolescent actress to Movie Star. Though most of the movies made during that time were forgettable, she broke through as an adult in Giant in 1956, a film remembered best as the last screen appearance of James Dean.

Among the memorable films of her long career were Little Women (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Raintree County (1957 – Nomination), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958 – Nomination), Suddenly Last Summer (1959 – Nomination), BUtterfield 8 (1960 – Oscar), Cleopatra (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966 – Oscar), The Taming of the Shrew (1967).

Taylor received the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1993, and a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1997.

And she had violet eyes.

(Ms. Taylor died March 23, 2011. Originally posted August 13, 2010)

Food: Dunkin’ Donuts

Dunkin' Donuts is headquartered in New England. Krispy Kreme calls North Carolina home. Is the rivalry between the two a matter of taste, or of cultures? Uploaded by

Let the record show that I selected my hometown brand, Krispy Kreme, for this list back on May 15, 2009. And that there’s nothing better in the entire donut universe than a warm original Krispy Kreme glazed donut. That being established, however, it’s undeniable that some people prefer Dunkin’ Donuts. And that DD makes some wonderful varieties – my favorite by far is Boston cream filled. And that if one were in front of me now, I would have eaten it before I finished typing this sentence.

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Dunkin’ Donuts originated in Quincy, Massachusetts, and is still headquartered in that state. One of the things that distinguishes the company from its competitors is the baked goods it offers beyond donuts. It offers a full line of breakfast sandwiches, and is especially recognized for the quality of its coffee. Many people who aren’t “donut people” will still go to the store for coffee. DD brand coffee is also sold in supermarkets.

Dunkin’ Donuts also owns Baskin-Robbins, which explains why you often see c0-branded stores. You can visit any of its 6,400 or so stores in the U.S., and enjoy any of its dozens of varieties of donuts.

(But leave some Boston cream-filled for me, please.)

Kid Stuff: Barbie

No doll has ever captured the imagination of American girls the way Barbie has. She celebrated her 50th birthday in 2009. Uploaded to Photobucket by bcsmith46.

She looks pretty good for 50, don’t you think? It’s rather amazing to see the impact a simple doll has had on American girls. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t wet. She doesn’t come with some goofy birth certificate. She’s a doll, for heaven’s sake.

And yet…she’s become an icon, both revered and reviled. Some say that Barbie’s figure leads girls to unrealistic body image issues, and contributes to anorexia and bulimia. Yeah, well. Mattel has sold over a billion of the things. There’s not that many people with eating disorders.

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Did you know her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts? Or that she’s had more than 80 careers? That she’s had 43 pets? That she didn’t have a belly button for 41 years? Personally, I don’t know whether she’s stringing Ken along or vice versa, but I think their relationship has been platonic long enough.

So to Barbie, I say congratulations on your longevity. And happy birthday. It’s hard to imagine an American girl’s room without you.

(Originally published April 10, 2009)

(By the way…a friend of mine, Stacy McAnulty, just published an online book called My Life According to Barbie. I can personally testify that it’s funny, because I served as its copy editor. It’s available for Kindle, iPad and the Nook.)

Travel: Stowe, Vermont


Stowe gets an average of 333 inches of natural snow each year. But it's become a true four-seasons resort, and is especially gorgeous in the fall. Uploaded by

Sometimes you have to chuckle at the writers on Wikipedia. Take this entry about one of the premier ski destinations in New England: “Tourism is a significant industry.” Really, Wikipedia?

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The resort’s main attraction is Mount Mansfield, which at 4,393 feet is the tallest in Vermont. The first ski trails were cut by the CCC during the Great Depression, and as no one ever said, “If you cut it down, they will come.” They come for the 116 runs and the 333 inches average of annual snowfall.

But Stowe, like most full-service resorts these days, offers a lot more than skiing. First there’s the beauty of this quintessential Vermont small town. There’s shopping, more fine restaurants than anywhere in New England outside of Boston and Providence, year-round outdoor sports like fishing and kayaking, and of course the gorgeous New England autumn (Great American Things, October 19, 2009). It’s a year-round destination for anyone, but a winter paradise for those who love going down the side of a mountain on two sticks.

Architecture: The Lincoln Memorial


Construction on the Lincoln Memorial began in 1914. Robert Todd Lincoln, the President's son, was present for the dedication in 1922 at the age of 79. Uploaded by

Several wonderful monuments dot Washington, DC to honor past presidents and veterans of our foreign wars. But none are as inspiring, as beautiful, and as beloved as The Lincoln Memorial on the Mall.

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Architect Henry Bacon designed the memorial, and Daniel Chester French created the immense sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. Oddly, some people during the planning stages thought the design too gaudy for the simple Lincoln; some even thought it should be a log cabin. Fortunately, the design we now see won the day, and it’s considered one of America’s architectural masterpieces. It’s ranked seventh on the list of America’s Favorite Architecture as chosen in a survey by the American Institute of Architects.

Construction on the Memorial began in 1914, and it was dedicated in 1922. Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, then 79 years old, attended the ceremony. The steps leading up to the Memorial have been the scene of many historic events, including Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963. Today, some 3.6 million people visit the site annually, and it’s not at all unusual to see tears in their eyes as they take in the moment.

Sports: The Boston Marathon


The Boston Marathon isn't for beginners. In fact, the qualification standards are strict, and participation is limited. Uploaded by

When Patriots Day approaches (that’s the third Monday in April, for those of you non-Massachusettians. Massachusetters. Bay Staters. Whatever) all eyes in New England turn toward Boston and the running of the Boston Marathon. It’s America’s oldest marathon, dating back to 1897, having reportedly been influenced by the marathon at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.

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Unlike some marathons, not everyone is eligible to participate at Boston. You have to qualify based on completion time in another sanctioned marathon. Starting in 2013, that time would range from 03:05:00 for a male under 35 up to 05:25:00 for a female over 80. And because so many people want to run this marathon, the registration time is extremely short for all but the most experienced runners. You have to know when registration is open and get your name in the field quickly.

Approximately a half million people line the course as the marathon makes its way through eight cities and towns, with the finish line in downtown Boston’s Copley Square. The Boston Red Sox traditionally play a game at 11:00 in the morning on race day, and the crowd lingers following the game to cheer runners in the race’s last mile.



Song: “As Time Goes By”


In the American Film Institute's list of 100 Years...100 Songs, "As Time Goes By" ranked number 2, behind "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Not sure I agree. Uploaded by

It’s the bane of a songwriter’s existence that the songs they write that become hits are forever associated with the recording artist, not them. In the case of “As Time Goes By,” even the singer’s identity is often forgotten. (It was Dooley Wilson.) We’ll always associate this song with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart and that wonderfully romantic movie Casablanca (Great American Things, February 14, 2010).

You remember the scene:

Ilsa: Play it once, Sam, for old times’ sake.
Sam: I don’t know what you mean, Miss Ilsa.
Ilsa: (whispered) Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’
Sam: Why, I can’t remember it, Miss Ilsa. I’m a little rusty on it.
Ilsa: I’ll hum it for you. (Ilsa hums two bars. Sam starts to play – without singing the lyrics. She presses him to sing.) Sing it, Sam.

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We can’t leave without acknowledging the songwriter, Herman Hupfield. Hupfield was a bit unusual in that he wrote both the music and lyrics for his songs. He penned “As Time Goes By” in 1931 for a Broadway musical, Everybody’s Welcome. It was later picked up and used in the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which was the basis for Casablanca. Fortunately for movie fans through the generations, the producers insisted the song be used in the movie as well. According to the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Songs, it’s the number two movie song of all time. (Number one is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”)

Americana: Fender Guitars


Just about every famous rock guitarist has made his name using a Fender guitar. Rock history has been played on a Stratocaster. Uploaded by

Picture Leo Fender in his California electronics workshop in the late 1930s. Fixing phonographs, radios, and public address systems. Oh…and instrument amplifiers. He had ideas, did Leo. Ideas about perfecting the electric guitar that would lead him to form the Fender Electric Instrument Company in 1946. He tinkered, and fiddled, and created a masterpiece. The first mass-produced, solid body, Spanish-style guitar: The Telecaster.

Jimi Hendrix playing a Stratocaster at Woodstock. Uploaded by

Think Jeff Beck, Steve Cropper, and George Harrison. Pete Townshend smashed a slew of them.

The next step was the Stratocaster. Which is only good enough for the likes of Eric Clapton, Dick Dale, and some guy named Hendrix.

There are other great guitars. Even other great American guitars. But almost everyone who picks up a guitar wants to own at least one Fender. It’s truly a great guitar. A Great American Thing.

Originally posted April 24, 2009.

History: Jamestown


The Jamestown settlement was about to fail, but then it found a crop it could sell to the folks back home for supplies and food. The crop that saved Jamestown? Tobacco. Uploaded by

What Sir Walter Raleigh and his Roanoke Island colonists failed to accomplish, the Jamestown settlers achieved: the first permanent English settlement in the New World. The first settlers arrived on Jamestown island on May 14, 1607, and though they endured hunger and disease and other hardships, they persevered.

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“Permanent” is somewhat misleading in this context, however. The settlement finally thrived once it based its economy on a profitable crop, tobacco. And Jamestown was the capital of the colony of Virginia until 1699, when it was moved to Williamsburg. Following that, Jamestown actually consisted mostly of farms, and housed no actual village.

Today, visitors to Jamestown can visit two historic exhibits, one operated by Virginia and one by the National Park Service. Jamestown Settlement grew out of Jamestown Festival Park, an exhibit created in 1957 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the settlement. Nearby is Historic Jamestowne, which has focused on unearthing archaeological relics that help tell what life in 17th century Virginia was like.

Most visitors to Jamestown stay in Williamsburg, which is connected to Jamestown by the historic Colonial Parkway – an enjoyable drive in itself.

Song: “The Way You Look Tonight”


Fred Astaire sang this beautiful song to Ginger Rogers in the 1936 movie Swing Time. It won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. Uploaded by

Every so often I have to pay homage to the Great American Songbook, and one of my favorites is “The Way You Look Tonight.” I have it on my iTunes by both Michael Bublé and Tony Bennett, though it was originally sung by Fred Astaire in the movie Swing Time, in which it won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1936.

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Jerome Kern wrote the music, and Dorothy Fields followed up with the lyrics. She said, “The first time Jerry played that melody for me I went out and started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.” Which reminds me, it’s time to feature Jerome Kern on this list…

Obviously, the song was released long before the Top 40 era, but it has managed to make the charts. The Lettermen recorded it as their first hit, and it went to number 13 in 1961.

“Someday, when I’m awfully low, when the world is cold, I will feel aglow just thinking of you – and the way you look tonight.” Does it get any more romantic than that?


Film: Schindler’s List

Schindler's List is the most expensive black and white film ever made. Without adjusting for inflation, though, it's also the highest-grossing b/w film ever made. Uploaded by

Schindler’s List is Stephen Spielberg’s masterpiece. And that’s quite a statement. It tells the true story of German businessman Oskar Schindler, a not particularly sympathetic character at first who exploits cheap Jewish labor in his factory. However, he comes to see the true horror of the holocaust, and saves the lives of some 1,100 Jews.

Spielberg (Great American Things, July 22, 2009) directed Schindler’s List to have  a documentary look. He said he “got rid of the crane, got rid of the

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Steadicam, got rid of the zoom lenses, got rid of everything that for me might be considered a safety net.” Shot in black and white, it’s said that no green items were allowed on the set because green didn’t look good on black and white film.

The film earned Best Picture honors and Spielberg was selected Best Director in the 1994 Academy Awards. It also took home five other Oscars. The American Film Institute’s list of 100 Years…100 Movies put Schindler’s List at number 8 – the only movie made since 1980 to place in the top 20.

Person: Harry Truman

Truman is the closest thing we've had to a common man as President in a long time. Though he was a senator from Missouri, he did his job in obscurity until FDR chose him to replace Henry Wallace in his third term. Uploaded by

Again, I tread lightly when selecting a person from the political realm. But as with Ronald Reagan (Great American Things, February 7, 2011), I admire Harry Truman for the kind of person he was, not just for the job he did as President. But I do admire that as well.

Truman was plucked from obscurity by Franklin Roosevelt to succeed Henry Wallace as Vice President for FDR’s third (and fourth) term. Well, being a U.S. Senator from Missouri isn’t quite obscurity, but Truman wasn’t a leader on the national stage. When Roosevelt died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage, Truman became the leader of the free world in the midst of a world war.Upon taking office, he said, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

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He performed admirably, making the difficult decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan that ended the conflict. Among his other notable accomplishments were implementing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, creating the Air Force and the CIA, airlifting crucial supplies to break the blockade of West Berlin, recognizing the state of Israel, and assuring civilian control of the military by firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Truman said of his life, “I always remember an epitaph which is in the cemetery at Tombstone, Arizona. It says: ‘Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest.’ I think that is the greatest epitaph a man can have…That is all you can ask of him and that is what I have tried to do.”

Album: Hotel California


This was Joe Walsh's first album with the Eagles, and his rock influence was just enough to lift the band from being a good country-rock group to the rock pantheon. Uploaded by

The Eagles (Great American Things, June 20, 2010) made a very fine living creating music that leaned slightly more rock than country in the growing country/rock genre. Then they released Hotel California, and entered the pantheon of true rock royalty.

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The album was produced at a time of transition in the band’s personnel. It was the first album with Joe Walsh, the last with bass player Randy Meisner, and the first without founding member Bernie Leadon. It came out late in 1976, and went to the top of the Billboard album chart, where it reigned for eight weeks. The band released three of its songs as singles: “New Kid in Town” went to number one and so did the title track. “Life in the Fast Lane” reached number 11.

Here’s what Billboard magazine said in its 1977 review: “This long-awaited album of new Eagles material more than lives up to its highest expectations, as hundreds of thousands of concertgoers who heard the L.A. quintet in person this summer and fall performing songs from the upcoming LP can attest. The casually beautiful, quietly intense multileveled vocal harmonies and brilliant original songs that meld solid emotional words with lovely melody lines are all back in full force…”

Rolling Stone named Hotel California number 37 on its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.