Great Performances to Savor
Byline: Bill Saporito
Issue: March 31, 2003 Vol. 161 No. 13 Special Issue/Gulf War II
Publication Date: 03-31-2003
Section:Changed The World
“YOU SHOULD HAVE BEEN THERE,” say the lucky ones who were. Of all the ball games, concerts and other live performances that go by the boards every day, a precious few live on. You probably have your own personal favorites: that wild day your home team finally won the Big One; the night in Jersey when the Boss was really on; the time you wandered into some jazz joint to find Coltrane at his peak. Then there are some we might all agree on–moments that marked a new phase in the arts or new heights of athletic achievement. We offer an album of some of the great ones that took place on TIME’s watch:
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue Aeolian Hall, New York City, Feb. 12, 1924
Up-tempo indeed. George Gershwin had agreed to write a symphonic jazz piece for bandleader Paul Whiteman. Gershwin didn’t think he had agreed to finish it for a February performance until he read about it in a newspaper a month before the date. So Gershwin got to writing, developing some early musical sketches to a complete score. Almost. By the premiere, he hadn’t finished scoring the piano solo. He played it himself, cuing Whiteman when to bring the orchestra back in. An orchestral star was born.
Babe Ruth’s 60th Home Run Yankee Stadium, New York City, Sept. 30, 1927
It couldn’t possibly have surprised anyone in 1927 that the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, would sock a bunch of homers. Since joining the Yankees back in 1920 after his sensational trade from the Boston Red Sox, he had been averaging 44 a year–54 in that first year alone. In the process he changed baseball. His upward swing and the short right-field fence in Yankee Stadium–the House That Ruth Built, which opened in 1923–would lead the 1927 Yanks to the pennant. At the end of the season, on a 1-1 pitch against Washington’s Tom Zachary, he set a home-run record that would stand for 34 years. BABE SMACKS SIXTIETH CIRCUIT SWAT, read one headline. The World Series against Pittsburgh would be a mere formality. Babe 4, Bucs 0.
Marion Anderson’s Washington Recital Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939
The Daughters of the American Revolution 0, Marian Anderson 75,000. That’s how many people thronged to the contralto’s magnificent concert at the Lincoln Memorial, made possible by the D.A.R.’s refusal to rent her Constitution Hall.
Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Washington, Oct. 30, 1944
Aaron Copland called it Ballet for Martha, as in Martha Graham. But she named it after a Hart Crane poem. Her ballet told the tale of a young marriage blossoming in pioneer-era Pennsylvania. In Copland’ s music, listeners heard not just an evocation of the Appalachians; they also heard the sound of a nation blossoming. The immediate impact is all the more amazing given the spareness of the composition. Framed by the Shaker folk song Simple Gifts, the music was originally scored for just 13 instruments because of the limited size of the orchestra pit at its opening venue.
Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds Mercury Theatre, N.Y., Oct. 30, 1938
Mass media begat mass hysteria, and the orchestrator was Orson Welles, who moved the setting of the sci-fi novel to New Jersey for a radio drama. Listeners heard a news bulletin break into a music broadcast and describe a meteor that crashed near Princeton and spewed fire- breathing aliens. They didn’t seem to hear the network announce four times that it was fiction.
Sinatra at the Paramount Broadway, Oct. 12, 1944
When he was introduced before headliner Benny Goodman in late 1942, the ensuing roar prompted Goodman, offstage, to ask, “What the hell was that?” The first superstar, baby. Two years later a crowd of 30, 000 teenage girls swamped the Paramount Theater in a morning ticket rush dubbed the Columbus Day Riot. The bobby-soxers had reached battalion strength. And when they heard Frank sing, they fell, as they would for decades, for Swoonatra.
Peter Pan Live Color Broadcast NBC, March 7, 1955
Think of Peter Pan as a TV salesman, and in that regard, this show was one of the most successful ever broadcast. One of the first color specials, it reached as many as 65 million homes. NBC, then owned by RCA, had no small interest in moving its expensive new color TVs, and Pan was a two-hour, $400,000 commercial for the glories of color. People gathered at the homes of neighbors who had “color” to watch. They were not disappointed. “Surely there must be fairy dust from coast to coast this morning,” raved a critic.
England’s World Cup Wembley Stadium, July 30, 1966
Today, when England faces Germany in soccer, English fans chant, ” Two world wars and one World Cup.” And what a Cup. An overtime goal gave England its only world championship. The climactic final was extended when the West Germans tied it 2-2 near the end of regulation. In O.T., England’s Geoff Hurst blasted a shot off the underside of the crossbar that ricocheted down and over the goal line. Goal. No, on the line. No goal. The camps remain divided. But England celebrated because the only opinion that mattered was the ref’s. Goal!
Hendrix at Woodstock Bethel, N.Y., Aug. 18, 1969
By the time he got to Woodstock, the festival was already three days old and hopelessly behind schedule. By Monday, a half-million drug- addled, sleep-deprived, rain-soaked flower children had piled onto Max Yasgur’s Catskill cow patch to hear everyone from Sha Na Na to the Who. But Jimi Hendrix was the headliner, whose contract stipulated that no other act could follow his. That probably wasn’t necessary. Rousing the crowd on Monday morning with a 2-hr.-plus set that included his psychedelic, virtuoso Star Spangled Banner, Hendrix closed the books on the Summer of Love. Kent State was nine months away.
The Ice Bowl Green Bay, Wis., Dec. 31, 1967
By game time, it had warmed up three degrees, to 13 below. In the stands, 50,000 Packer backers stuffed themselves into their flap-eared hats and sleeping bags. For the Dallas Cowboys, hell had frozen over. For fans gathered around their warm televisions, it was a frosty football treasure. Trailing 17-14 with seconds to go, the Pack pulled out the NFL title on QB Bart Starr’s sneak.
Nadia’s Perfect Score Montreal Games, July 19, 1976
The 14-year-old gymnast became queen of the Montreal Games by making history as the first to rate a perfect score in the Olympics–on the uneven bars, punctuated by a backwards half-twist dismount. She followed with a perfect score on the balance beam. The Forum, normally filled with raucous French Canadian hockey fans, was instead roaring with appreciation for a 4-ft. 11-in., 86-lb. Romanian who would finish the Games with seven perfect 10s, three gold medals, one silver and one bronze. Comaneci launched a thousand gymnastics clubs that night.
Secretariat’s Triple Crown Belmont Park, N.Y., June 9, 1973
He used to like to hang back a little and then put his magnificent red self into gear, as he did in winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. In the Belmont, only four other horses challenged. So Big Red raced history. He entered the far turn seven lengths in front and exited 20 to the good. And then he turned it loose for the adoring mob. At the finish he was 31 lengths in front. The 2:24 set a world record for 1 1/2 miles and a new standard for equine fame.
Philippe Petit Walks the Towers World Trade Center, Aug. 7, 1974
The French tightrope artist had friends carry gear to the top of the still unfinished north tower. On a breezy morning he frolicked on a wire to the south tower, 1,350 ft. up, crossing eight times in 45 minutes, before a cop told him to come in.
Jackson’s Moonwalk Pasadena, Calif., March 25, 1983
During the Motown 25 anniversary show, Michael Jackson joined his brothers for a brief Jackson Five reunion, then appeared solo in bolo tie. The song Billie Jean began and so did Jacko’s feet. He produced a Gumby-legged rock ballet, then topped it off with his moonwalk. The move created such a buzz that when the tape of the live show was televised, 47 million viewers dropped in.
Carson’s Goodbye Burbank, Calif., May 21, 1992
After nearly 30 years in complete control, Johnny Carson finally lost it. In his second-to-last show, Carson simply shrugged off a raunchy Robin Williams joke (“What are they gonna do–can me?”). Then final guest Bette Midler coaxed the king of late night into an impromptu duet and closed with a velvet cover of One More for My Baby that had Carson–memorably–in tears.
Miracle on Ice Lake Placid, N.Y., Feb. 22, 1980
The game was bigger than ice hockey. When the two global powers finally met in the semifinals, the free world seemed to be at stake. And then the Red machine went clank. Never let an underdog think it has a shot. Mike Eruzione made the go-ahead goal 10 endless minutes before the buzzer. U.S.A. 4, U.S.S.R. 3.
The Three Tenors Baths of Caracalla, Rome, July 7, 1990
It didn’t begin until the Fat Guys started singing. When Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, along with a 200-strong orchestra, wowed ’em with vocal skyrockets like Nessun dorma, opera hit high C–and a merchandising concept was born.
A Tribute to Heroes N.Y.C., L.A. and London, Sept. 21, 2001
The program was flawless for the task at hand: raising money for a still smoldering New York City and offering an entire country a way to share its grief. Performances, starting with Bruce Springsteen’ s My City of Ruins and ending with Willie Nelson leading dozens of stars in America the Beautiful, combined notes of mourning, strength and hope.