Originally posted November 11, 2009:
I mentioned the other day my abiding love of sports. As strong as that affection is, it took a while to develop. While I’d enjoyed watching St. Cloud State football when I was quite young – nine or ten years old – I hadn’t had any great passion for sports at the time. We went as a family to St. Cloud State basketball games – the Huskies had a very good small college team for most of the 1960s – and went occasionally across town to see the local minor league baseball team, the St. Cloud Rox. (And given the history of granite quarrying in the St. Cloud’s area, that has to be one of the great team nicknames of all time!) I enjoyed all of it, but it wasn’t a focal point of my life.
I’ve never figured out why, but that changed in September 1967. One of the reflections of that change, of my new-found interest in sports and competition, was my request – granted rapidly – to subscribe to Sports Illustrated. The first edition I got showed Lou Brock of the St. Louis Cardinals on the cover, as the Cardinals were facing the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. The writing was crisp and clear, the photos were remarkable, and the magazine covered a wide variety of sports, including some things that I’d never considered as sport: Dog shows, chess, yachting. I absorbed it all, and it fueled the metamorphosis in me from casual fan to informed fan.
Why write about that metamorphosis today? Because of a confluence of events and anniversaries.
A man named Earsell Mackbee died Monday in Vallejo, California, ten days after being transferred there on a medical plane from a hospital in Minneapolis. Vallejo was where Mackbee grew up, and gravely ill as he was, he wanted to die at home. He got his wish, through the help of friends and the help of his former colleagues in the National Football League.
Mackbee was a defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings for five years, from 1965 through 1969. As I was learning about pro football in the fall of 1967 – through Sports Illustrated and through the Minneapolis and St. Cloud evening papers – Mackbee’s name was one that I recognized. Most likely because it was a different name – I knew no kids named Earsell – and also, I would guess, because he played a position that occasionally put him in the spotlight, whether for a lapse that resulted in a big play for the opponent or for a good play that benefitted the Vikings. He wasn’t an anonymous lineman, and one heard his name relatively frequently while watching the Vikings on television.
So Mackbee’s name – he wore jersey No. 46, I think – was one that I knew on a chilly Sunday in November 1967 – forty-two years ago tomorrow – when my dad and I set out from St. Cloud to go see the Vikings play the Detroit Lions. The tickets were ridiculously cheap by today’s standard: Five dollars each. (It’s good to keep inflation in mind, though. An online calculator tells me that what cost five dollars in 1967 would now cost almost thirty-two dollars.) And Dad and I settled into our seats in the front row of the second deck.
The Vikings and the Lions tied that afternoon, 10-10. The Vikings’ only touchdown came when Earsell Mackbee picked up a fumble and returned it fifty-five yards. It was one of two touchdowns he scored during his NFL career.
That game against the Lions and Mackbee’s touchdown have crossed my mind occasionally over the past forty-two years, but the memories came back with a rush two weeks ago, when I saw in the Minneapolis newspaper the news story about Mackbee being flown to California to die. There was a twinge of sorrow, but even stronger – and I think Mackbee would have liked this – was a flash of memory, a vision of the purple-clad Earsell Mackbee carrying the ball into the end zone on a grey November day in 1967.
A Six-Pack from November 1967
“Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock
“Stag-O-Lee” by Wilson Pickett
“Tell Mama” by Etta James
“Lady Bird” by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood
“Like An Old Time Movie” by Scott McKenzie
“Desiree” by the Left Banke
“Incense & Peppermints,” as I’ve likely said here before, is one of those records that powerfully bring back a time and place: I’m in the gym at South Junior High in St. Cloud during the last few minutes of the lunch period, and the rest of the guys and I are watching the girls dance to the Strawberry Alarm Clock. I imagine I’ve posted the song before, too, but it’s such a good single, at least to these ears, that I can’t help myself. The record peaked at No. 1.
The Wilson Pickett record is one of multiple versions of a song that’s been sliding around America for more than a hundred years, titled as “Stagger Lee,” “Stag-O-Lee,” “Stacker Lee” and more. (The two earliest versions I have were recorded in 1927: “Billy Lyons & Stack O’Lee” by Furry Lewis and “Stackalee” by Frank Hutchinson.) Pickett’s version, which went to No. 22, is pretty good, but it’s difficult for any R&B performer to top the 1959 version by Lloyd Price. (There seems to be some confusion about the exact title of Pickett’s recording: the Billboard chart and All-Music Guide have the title as “Stagger Lee,” while Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits has it as “Stag-O-Lee.” I’ve gone with Whitburn.
Etta James’ “Tell Mama” came out of sessions that took place in Muscle Shoals in 1967 and 1968. Those sessions provided James with her last two Top 40 hits: “Tell Mama” went to No. 23, and the Otis Redding-penned “Security” went to No. 35 in the spring of 1968. “Tell Mama” is a hard-hitting piece of Southern soul, and the entire Tell Mama album is worth a listen or two. (The album was released a few years ago in a remastered version with ten additional tracks from the sessions.)
“Lady Bird” is one of those odd and evocative singles that Lee Hazelwood wrote and produced for Nancy Sinatra, sometimes – as in this case – singing on the record as well. Maybe it’s just me, but when I hear one of those Hazelwood-produced records, it’s like being for a few moments in a mildly alternate universe: Things are just a little off-kilter but they still seem to all somehow make sense. It’s an interesting place to be for a short time. The record went to No. 20.
When a singer’s previous record was “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” what the heck do you do for a follow-up? In the case of Scott McKenzie, you go back into the studio with John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and record another one of Phillips’ songs. “Like An Old Time Movie” was the result, and it’s not a bad single. It’s got a decent lyric although McKenzie oversings it at points. It got to No. 24, and, as McKenzie’s second hit, it’s the only thing keeping him from being a One-Hit Wonder, as he never got into the Top 40 again.
“Desiree” was another attempt by the Left Banke to replicate the success of the group’s 1966 hit, “Walk Away Renee.” It’s not bad, but the vocals sound thin at times, especially given the busy backing they have to contend with. The record was newly listed in the November 11, 1967, Billboard as one of the songs bubbling under the Hot 100. By the next week, it was gone.
(I think these are all the single versions and I’ve tagged them as such, but I’m frankly not sure: Some of these might be album tracks. Whichever they are, the single versions were all in the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending November 11, 1967.)