Rick James on Buffalo: ‘It’s a great town, but it’s a strange place’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

“The people of Buffalo are beautiful. There’s a lot of talent here,” said Rick James upon his return here in 1977 to start a record distribution company.

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building, 1977. (Buffalo News archives)

Rick James sits on the hood of his Cadillac in front of the Buffalo Savings Building in 1977. (Buffalo News archives)

He told The News he left Buffalo not by choice, but because he’d been called to Vietnam with the Navy after missing too many reserves meetings. After a few more clashes with military brass, he fled to Toronto, where he formed the group “Mynah Bird” with Neil Young.

In concert at Memorial Auditorium, 1982. (Buffalo News archives.)

In concert at Memorial Auditorium in 1982. (Buffalo News archives)

Just as Motown was ready to release that group’s first album, the old Navy trouble resurfaced and James spent a year in prison. Young split to join Buffalo Springfield, and the future Super Freak went to work writing and producing for Motown.

Rick James and former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks chat with a couple of Buffalo Bills on the Rich Stadium sidelines, 1979. (Buffalo News archives.)

Rick James and former heavyweight champ Leon Spinks chat with a couple of Buffalo Bills on the Rich Stadium sidelines in 1979. (Buffalo News archives.)

When James came back to Buffalo in 1977, his name was not a household one, but his star was on the rise. C. Antony Palmer wrote in The News that James “is a performer who gives that little extra effort.”

After several well-received singles, James’ 1981 release “Super Freak” made him a world-renowned funk star.

MC Hammer and Rick James stop feuding, and meet before Hammers concert at The Aud, 1990. The two battled after Hammers hit U Cant Touch This sampled music from James hit Super Freak. (Buffalo News archives.)

MC Hammer and Rick James stop feuding and meet before Hammer’s concert at the Aud in 1990. The two battled after Hammer’s hit “U Can’t Touch This” sampled music from James’ hit “Super Freak.” (Buffalo News archives)

The rocker returned to Buffalo again in 1997, this time shooting a “Behind the Scenes” documentary for VH-1. He hadn’t been back to Buffalo in six years. Three of those years away were spent in prison. James told News reporter Anthony Violanti that the years in prison were the first of his life that he tried to clean up, dry out and grow up.

A reflective James said he could never move back to Buffalo or his Orchard Park home — the memories were too painful. He did visit School 53, the Masten Boys Club and Masten High School — though school officials demurred on the chance for James to meet with students.

James joined by his girlfriend-- Exorcist actress Linda Blair, and Bobby Militello at Mulligans, on Hertel Avenue in 1982. (Buffalo News archives.)

James was joined by his girlfriend, “Exorcist” actress Linda Blair, and Bobby Militello at Mulligan’s on Hertel Avenue in 1982. (Buffalo News archives)

“It’s a great town,” James said of Buffalo, “but it’s a strange place.” He said there was nowhere else that had more influence on his music than his hometown.

Seven years before he died of heart failure, he had one wish for the city.

“There should be more love between blacks and whites in Buffalo,” James said. “It’s so cold, and winter’s coming.”

Torn-down Tuesday: View from the Donovan Office Building, 1963

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Now known as One Canalside, the former General William J. Donovan State Office Building is now an anchor of what’s fun, new and exciting in Buffalo’s inner harbor — from the new Pizza Plant to the spectacular top floor headquarters of Phillips Lytle.

Buffalo News archives

Just as the refurbished building represents what Western New Yorkers hope is a “New Buffalo” on the horizon, when it first opened in 1962, it also represented what was new and exciting.

Century-old buildings, seen as tired and worn out, were bulldozed to make way for the building — the construction of which was followed closely by both The Evening News and Courier-Express in much the same way we all anxiously followed the construction of HarborCenter.

This was the view from the roof of the Donovan Building, looking north up the 190, shortly after the building opened in 1963. That’s the corner of Memorial Auditorium in the foreground, the Col. Ward Pumping Station in the distance to the left, and to the right is the familiar top of Buffalo’s City Hall.

Otherwise, most of the 19th century buildings in view are long gone, replaced by the Marine Midland/One Seneca Building and the WNED/WBFO studios, the Adam’s Mark Hotel and others.

To the left of the Ashland Oil sign, you can still make out the front of the Buffalo Gas Works building — the front of which still stands as part of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield headquarters.

 

Buffalo in the ’70s: Rick Jeanneret in the Aud Press Box

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Spine-tingling. Quirky. Explosive. Imaginative. These are all words that have been printed in The News over the last 45 years to describe Rick Jeanneret’s colorful Buffalo Sabres play-by-play style. Rick, in comparing himself to another wild and exciting play-by-play man said, “I don’t think he’s quite as nuts as I am.”

Buffalo News archives, 1989

Like most of us who have grown up with Jeanneret as an inseparable part of what the Sabres are to us, it was easy to take his style and personality for granted. “This is how hockey—how Sabres hockey—sounds, right?”

The new announcers who have taken some of the load off Rick’s schedule over the last few years do the job well. They describe the play in a knowledgeable, exciting, fun, and professional manner. But Rick is, well, in his word, “nuts.” There’s nothing forced about him talking about how tough a “lady is for taking a puck off the coconut” and “not even spilling her beer.”

Rick Jeanneret and the late Voice of the Bills Van Miller are different in almost every conceivable way, but the one way  they were exactly the same is the same way they honest-to-goodness lose their minds when their team—our team—does the extraordinary. There’s nothing fake in the shouting. Rick’s goal calls mix perfectly with the explosion of screaming at taverns and gin mills and in living rooms and in cars all over the place—because it’s the same excitement.

We all remember “May Day” and “LalalalalalaFontaine” and “Hasek robbed him blind!,” but there was also, “whooooa, he really PUNCHED him,” and “HERE COMES SHIELDS,” as goalie Steve Shields skated the length of the ice to make sure his teammates weren’t outnumbered in a fight. There was also the infamous question for a Quebec Nordiques goalie  shouted in the course of impassioned play-by-play, “Richard Sevingy–  Where’s your jockstrap!?!?”

Our guy RJ, inseparable from our love for Sabres hockey, watches the game and says the things we wish we were smart and cool enough to say. If he were only one of us, he’d be the funniest, most excitable, best-informed guy watching the game with us at the tavern. Instead, for 45 years, he’s been the funniest, most excitable, best-informed guy in every tavern in Western New York.

When News reporter Lee Coppola visited Jeanneret in the Memorial Auditorium press box in 1979, he wrote that when watching Rick work behind the mic high above the Aud ice, “it’s his feet that catch the eye … a cup of beer to his right and a filter cigarette in the ashtray to his left.”

Buffalo News archives, 1979

His feet never stopped tapping while he was telling us what he saw on the ice, but he says he limited himself to one beer per period to “help loosen his tonsils” while calling the game the way he’d want to hear it. By 1989, the beer drinking during the games had dried up—mostly because, Jeanneret told The News in 1992, new arenas were being built without thinking of a play-by-play man’s washroom needs.

It all started one day in 1963, when Jeanneret was a disc jockey at CJRN Radio in Niagara Falls. He went to a junior game as a fan. Despite the fact that he’d never done hockey play-by-play before, folks from the station came to find him when the guy who was supposed to announce the game on the radio called in sick. He’s been a hockey announcer ever since, including for some time with the American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons, and living inside our radios and TVs as one of the voices of Sabres hockey since 1971.

“I’ve got a better job than Wayne Gretzky,” RJ told The News in 1992. “I just don’t make as much money.”

Buffalo in the ’70s: Bob McAdoo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tangle at the Aud

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

It was an overtime thriller in a battle of two of the NBA’s premier big men as Bob McAdoo and the Braves hosted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lakers at Memorial Auditorium.

Buffalo News archives

It was Nov. 9, 1976, and McAdoo was showing the stuff that had won him the NBA MVP Award a season earlier.

Down by 20 heading into the fourth quarter, McAdoo led a comeback — including hitting a basket with two seconds left to tie the game. Randy Smith’s eight points in overtime cemented the Braves’ 121-116 victory.

Abdul-Jabbar led the game with 37 points in the losing effort; McAdoo had 34.

Buffalo fans were getting one of their last looks at McAdoo in a Buffalo uniform. Exactly one month to the day after this photo was taken, McAdoo was traded to the New York Knicks along with Tom McMillen for John Gianelli and cash.

McAdoo and Abdul-Jabbar ended up teammates on two Los Angeles Lakers championship teams where McAdoo was the sixth man on the club that also featured fellow Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and James Worthy.

Buffalo in the ’50s: Gorgeous George brings showmanship to the Aud

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Gorgeous George was wrestling’s first bad guy. He invented the persona after he married his real-life wife in the ring, and then over and over again, seeing the potential for showmanship in the sport, which had little of it before his silk robes and atomizer.

Buffalo News archives

This photo comes from a 1949 match at the Aud, with GG (as the papers of the day referred to him) against Ray Villmer, “The Mighty Yankee.”

You can be sure the crowd was erupting as it looked like “The Human Orchid” might finally lose. From a clipping on another match:

Gorgeous hardly is gaining in favor with the populace. Mincing down the aisle in a cream robe, cape style, he was the target for assorted paper cartons and one entire beer. He was thrown out of the ring early in the mill, and his well-being appeared endangered until he escaped.

GG is well-remembered for rebuffing any touch with a boisterous “Get your filthy paws off of me,” but two events remained etched into the psyches of Buffalo wrestling fans. One, the night Stormy Bob Wagner “gave Gorgeous an authentic beating” at Memorial Auditorium, complete with a real head wound created by GG’s perfume bottle.

The other press event involved Gorgeous George driving to the Aud down Main Street in a convertible, waving around handfuls of dollar bills. When he began to throw them out to “the peasants” in Lafayette Square, a riot almost ensued.

The stories are emblematic of a showman whose curly locks and silky robes helped make wrestling into a popular attraction that became the multi-billion dollar industry it is today.

To remember GG as merely a heel wrestler — even only as “The First Heel Wrestler” — belittles his memory. The Human Orchid was one of the great stars of early television. Wrestling was cheap, flashy and easy to televise — and Gorgeous George was the performer that people loved to hate. It was said that in TV’s earliest years, Gorgeous George’s appearance on TV sold as many televisions as Milton Berle’s.

Gorgeous George — his legal name after 1950 — died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1963, just as another boisterous, flamboyant, larger-than-life personality began his career in the ring — albeit the boxing ring.

In the same 1964 Associated Press story that asked if Cassius Clay was “a hoax … or the new golden boy,” his promotional style was offered up as patterned after Gorgeous George.

Buffalo in the ’50s: The closest Buffalo’s ever come to a presidential debate

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

During the 1952 presidential campaign, both the Republican and Democratic candidates visited Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium for rallies on back-to-back days.

Buffalo News archives

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the hero of World War II and Republican candidate, drew a crowd of 20,000 at the Aud. The photo shows the future first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, along with former New York Gov. and 1948 Republican nominee Thomas Dewey, on the Aud stage. At the time, it was the largest-ever crowd in the building.

The day before, Gov. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, spoke to about 13,000 at the Aud.

The Courier-Express called the two days of campaigning “Buffalo’s Great Presidential Debate.” Judging by the numbers of supporters who showed up for each event, Eisenhower won the debate — and the White House. He served two terms, with Mamie as first lady, from 1953 to 1960.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Up in the Oranges, hanging on for dear life

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

As hockey season gets underway in Buffalo, inevitably someone will wax poetic about the great old days of watching the Sabres at Memorial Auditorium.

Buffalo News archives

While the memories might be sweet, the modern hockey fan might not last even one period without complaint.

This 1973 photo shows the extreme pitch of seats in the Orange section of the Aud as compared to the grade in the Upper Blue section just below.  Even the most thrilling fights on the ice were often outmatched by the hundreds of people fighting vertigo after standing up too quickly from their perch in the Orange section after a beer or three.

The photo also shows one of The Aud’s features which even the most nostalgic fan has a hard time recalling with warmth. Look at the legs underneath the lighted sign, and remember the obstructed Upper Blue seats, from which fans watched a good portion of the hockey action on ancient television sets dangling from the underside of the Oranges.

The plastic-backed orange seats date to the 1971 expansion of The Aud, when the roof was raised to make room for the upper level.

The wooden blue seats—which before the expansion were gray—dated back to the original construction of Memorial Auditorium in 1940.

The Aud closed in 1996 as the Sabres (as well as the Bandits and Blizzard) moved into Marine Midland Arena (now First Niagara Center.)

Memorial Auditorium was slowly dismantled in 2009, and the site is now covered with canals replicating the original Erie Canal. The canals are open for paddle boats in warmer weather, and ice skating when frozen. A marker in the canal points to where The Aud’s center ice faceoff dot once was.

Buffalo in the 90’s: Ice and the Hammer at the Aud

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Hammertime!

Buffalo Stories archives

“Exclusive” sticker patches from Kiss 98.5’s Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer concerts from the early 90s at Memorial Auditorium.

Vanilla Ice played Buffalo March 7, 1991 and MC Hammer played the Aud on October 13, 1990.

These were in the drawer of the desk I inherited down the hall from Kiss 98.5.

Milt Ellis, Norm Wullen, Joe Byron, and the sounds of The Aud

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

miltellis
Milt Ellis

Buffalo, NY – He was so understated, you didn’t miss him until he was gone.

But there’s no doubt I’m not the only one who can’t help myself when I’m in an echoey room– I have to break loose with a Milt Ellis tribute.

1st Buffalo Goal, his second of the season, scored by number 20 Brent Peterson. assists to number number 7 Dale McCourt, and number 23 Hannu Virta. Peterson, from McCourt and Virta. Time of the Goal, 13:22.

Every Buffalo hockey fan past a certain age has a Milt Ellis impression, whether they know it or not. Milt is a Buffalo institution– although he’d be the last one to say so. He’s the most humble, sincere, honest man you’ll ever meet.

The Aud Complete with scoreboard, overhang Oranges, and "Cigarette Butt" Sound Baffles hanging fromt he ceiling.
The Aud: complete with scoreboard, overhang Oranges, and “Cigarette Butt” Sound Baffles hanging from the ceiling.
Stan Barron
Stan Barron

Milt’s Memorial Auditorium public address career started with the AHL Hockey Bisons in the mid-60s. His friend Stan Barron was the PR man for the Bisons, and they needed a new PA announcer. Stan called Milt and Milt continued to be the voice of goals, penalties, and New York State Smoking Regulations until 1997 (yes, he worked for two years in the then-Marine Midland Arena.)

Longtime Leafs PA Announcer Paul Morris
Paul Morris

A hockey fan long before the Sabres skated into Buffalo, Milt has always held a place in his heart for the Leafs. When he was growing up, he could get the Leafs games on the radio and TV. Though he’ll tell you he really doesn’t consider himself having a “style,” has has said that he’s always admired the work of longtime Leafs PA Announcer Paul Morris.

Sabres broadcast crew, Mid-80s, in the Memorial Auditorium Press Box. Mike Robitaille, Jim Lorentz, Rick Jeanneret, Ted Darling
Sabres broadcast crew, Mid-80s, in the Memorial Auditorium Press Box. Mike Robitaille, Jim Lorentz, Rick Jeanneret, Ted Darling

The Milt Ellis Jukebox is filled with Milt’s Public Address announcements, as well as other ephemeral sound from a night at The Aud.

Many will remember Milt introducing “The National Anthem, with Tenor Joe Byron and organist Norm Wullen.”

Selections from both men are programmed into the jukebox… Also included are a full length interview Mike Schopp conducted with Milt at WNSA Radio in 2001, and a portion of a show from WDCX– The Christian Station that was Milt’s “Day Job” the entire time he was the Sabres PA announcer.

Also a brief clip from one of the men Milt looked up to as a PA Announcer… The Voice of Maple Gardens, longtime Toronto PA man Paul Morris.

miltjukebox


Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com
Reformatted & Updated pages from staffannouncer.com finding a new home at buffalostories.com