randy best series

Observant readers may have noticed that I haven’t linked to many of my stories from the DMN recently. That’s because…I haven’t been writing much to link to. I’ve been off writing a series of stories, and that series finally ran over the last three days.
Sunday: “For a newborn college, the road to respectability runs through accreditation. It can take a school up to a decade to earn the nation’s official mark of quality. But last year some Dallas investors, keen to quickly launch a profitable revolution in higher education, found a shortcut to accreditation. They bought it.” Plus a sidebar.
Monday: “Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best has owned more than 100 companies in his career. Bakeries and defense contractors. Greeting-card makers and health-care companies. Companies that sell telecom equipment and companies that sell cheerleading equipment. But now, at 63, his focus is fully on education. Mr. Best is launching a network of for-profit education companies that he says could revolutionize the way students are taught, both in the U.S. and around the world.” With a sidebar on former Dallas superintendent Mike Moses and his current life in the private sector.
Tuesday: “Gerald Heeger is a newcomer to Texas, but he isn’t afraid to set Texas-size goals. In five years, he wants his company, Whitney International University, to enroll more than half a million students around the world and be on its way to becoming the biggest provider of higher education the Earth has ever seen. ‘How’s that for audacity?’ Dr. Heeger said in his downtown Dallas office. ‘I believe there’s a big problem in the world, and big problems need big solutions.'” Plus a sidebar on the company’s plans to “redefine” high school.

MP3 Monday: May 29, 2006

Week Five of MP3 Monday brings a brand new theme: Songs performed live on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC music show that aired from 1971 to 1987. During its lifespan, it was probably the premiere televised source for new music, with particular focus on soul, punk, postpunk, and (since this was early ’80s Britain) reggae.
The BBC has issued a series of DVDs compiling performances from the show, which has resulted in fans uploading videos to Youtube. I’ve ripped the MP3s below from those videos; links to more of those at the bottom.
As always, songs will be available for download for a week, so grab ’em quick.
1. “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers. From the November 21, 1972 episode. Originally from the album Just As I Am (1971).
Bill Withers got a late start in the music game, not recording until his early 30s and only after careers in the military and aircraft assembly. Of his first album, from which “Ain’t No Sunshine” is taken, he said: “I was just making a record. I didn’t know whether anyone was going to like it or not. Had nobody gone for that first record, I would have probably just gone on with life and forgot about the whole thing.” That would have been a shame, since he has a wonderfully calming, human-scale soul voice.
Judging by the sweat in Bill’s eyes, the lights at BBC Television Centre must have been turned up high the day this track was recorded. Hip-hop heads will notice legendary session man James Gadson on drums. If you saw the great documentary Keepintime — in which Gadson and some other classic soul drummers meet up with the DJs (Cut Chemist, Madlib, J-Rocc, DJ Shadow) who sample their old sides — you’ll remember Gadson as the crazy-looking old dude. Non-hip-hop heads will simply notice his permagrin and great suit.

And while I’m at it, here’s one more Bill Withers track: “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” from 1972’s Live at Carnegie Hall.
2. “Can’t Stand Losing You” by The Police. From the October 3, 1978 episode. Originally from the album Outlandos d’Amour (1978).
For those of us who first heard The Police when they had already hit the big time (Synchronicity-era), it’s nice to see them young and scrappy. “Can’t Stand Losing You” was the first single from their first album and it went nowhere initially. This Whistle Test appearance came just as the band was picking up steam.
In the video, a coltish young Sting looks so much more punk than he would in later tantric years, with his bleached spiked hair turned lime green by the overhead lights. Although he would have been around 27 at the time, he looks an awkward 19. Also a good reminder of how great a drummer Stewart Copeland was.
Also, Sting stole Harry Caray’s glasses.

3. “To Hell With Poverty” by Gang of Four. Originally from the EP Another Day/Another Dollar (1982). From the April 11, 1981 episode.
Gang of Four was the British parallel to Mission of Burma, an angular post-punk band that mixed rigid funk, left-wing politics, and names derived from Asian governments. (Brits would, perhaps rightly, prefer to call Mission of Burma the American parallel to Gang of Four.)
Like Burma, Gang of Four has seen its sound become hugely influential among a certain school of contemporary acts (Franz Ferdinand, The Rapture, Bloc Party, et al) and has recently reformed. If you want to buy an album, Entertainment! — which still sounds fresh, abrasive, and fun 27 years later — is the clear recommendation.
The strangest thing about this video is how downright regular the Four look. By which I mean: how dorky they look. They could be your local Class 2A all-district cross-country team circa 1984.

Finally, here are some other interesting videos from Whistle Test. The ones in bold are of particular interest:

Stick around for the ending of that Damned track. It’s so much harder being punk rock when you’re in an empty studio.
Finally, a classic video of The Edgar Winter Group doing “Frankenstein”, a symbol of prog rock at its most progtastic. Dude rocks a keytar and oh so much more! Truly awesome in its awesomeness. So awesome, in fact, that it’s parodied, three decades later, in this sketch from a BBC comedy show.

more cheating

Longtime readers may remember all my stories in 2004-05 about cheating on the TAKS, the state standardized test here in Texas. Some state officials said my stories — which found evidence that hundreds of Texas schools may be cheating — exaggerated the size of the problem. To check it out for themselves, they hired a test-security firm to look for cheaters.
Which is prologue for my story on the front page today:

About one in 12 Texas schools had unusual TAKS results that suggest cheating occurred last year, according to a consultant hired by the Texas Education Agency.

The consultant, a Utah test security firm named Caveon, was hired after a Dallas Morning News series found suspicious scores in nearly 400 schools statewide, based on 2003 and 2004 testing results.

Caveon’s analysis, using 2005 TAKS results, found even more: 609 schools, or 8.6 percent of the state’s campuses.

MP3 Monday: May 22, 2006

Week Four of MP3 Monday centers on my trip back home to south Louisiana weekend before last — some excellent Cajun and zydeco music. As always, songs will be available for download for a week, so grab ’em quick.
1. “I’m Coming Home” by C.J. Chenier. From the album My Baby Don’t Wear No Shoes (1993).
C.J. Chenier is stuck in the same bind as Michael Andretti or Emilio Estevez: going into the same business as your very successful father. His dad Clifton Chenier was the self-proclaimed “King of Zydeco” — even appearing on stage wearing a crown — and no one disputed the title. If anyone could be said to have invented the genre, it’s Clifton.
But C.J. has done well for himself. He initially shunned zydeco music, but his dad convinced him to join his touring band, and when Clifton died, C.J. took over leadership of the Red Hot Louisiana Band. This track (written by his father, with uncle Cleveland Chenier on rubboard) is classic dancehall zydeco — a strong ’50s blues feel and excellent slow-dance potential.
C.J.’s latest latest album, the somber and hurricane-themed The Desperate Kingdom of Love, came out earlier this month. It features what I am going to assume is his first P.J. Harvey cover.
It sounds interesting, from the excerpts I can find online, but puhleeze can someone in south Louisiana learn how to mike drums? So many Cajun/zydeco bands sound amazing live but flat and indistinguishable on record, and the biggest reason is that the drums get miked all wrong — all bright and shiny and foreground. Most good south Louisiana music needs grit, and that’s hard to get when producers insist on a clean mix. Seriously, throw some punk-rock producer at a good zydeco band and you could make it cook. And maybe you’d get some young people interested, instead of the 50-plus crowd you get at too many Cajun/zydeco shows these days.
(The same is true of most contemporary blues and a lot of jazz — when you smooth all the dirty, skronky, dissonant goodness off it, you’re left with technically sound but boring pap.)
2. “Zydeco Gris Gris” by The Pine Leaf Boys. Recorded live at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, May 6, 2006.
Saw these guys with my friends in Lafayette weekend before last, and I love the fact they have the same goal I just outlined. (Wilson Savoy, quasi-leader of the Pine Leaf Boys, told my friend Julia after the show that their goal is to get hot young women to go to their shows. Now that’s the right way to look at it.) The Pine Leaf Boys are all in their early 20s and play fast and hard — they’re self-proclaimed traditionalists, but with an attitude.
(I love that on their web site they quote my old school buddy Josh Caffery: “The live performances of the Pine Leaf Boys are a revelation of anarchy and reverence and manic exuberance funneled through traditional musical forms.” For fun, here’s a photo of me and Josh C. at age six.)
Wilson comes from a noted Cajun-music family: his dad Marc Savoy is one of the great lions of the culture and a maker of accordions; mom Ann Savoy wrote the best book on Cajun music and is in the Magnolia Sisters; and older brother Joel Savoy was in the great Red Stick Ramblers, which started the nascent Cajun/Western Swing movement, along with Josh Caffery. Not sure what he’s up to these days, but I do know an ex-girlfriend of mine developed a serious crush on him after a Ramblers show a few years back.
Anyway, if the Boys ever come to your neck of the woods, trust me: go see them. Here’s another song from that Breaux Bridge show, “Pine Grove Blues.” And here’s video of a recent performance at the best bar in the world. More songs and videos at their web site.
(If all goes according to plan, you may be hearing excerpts from that Pine Leaf Boys show on a future edition of “All Things Considered.” Cross your fingers.)
3. “Tu Peut Pas M’Arreter de Rêver (You Can’t Stop Me From Dreaming)” by The Lost Bayou Ramblers. From the album Pilette Breakdown (2003).
As mentioned above, one strain of contemporary Cajun music merges it with Bob Wills-style Western swing (with a schmear of gypsy jazz). Who knows who came up with it first; the Red Stick Ramblers were where I first heard it, but the Lost Bayou Ramblers have been at it for a while too. The focus is on reviving old pre-World War II songs, when Cajun music emphasized the fiddle. With its shuffle-brush drums and jaunty bass, “Tu Peut Pas M’Arreter de Rêver” could be a Django Reinhardt outtake.
Like Bob Wills — who played under the name the Light Crust Doughboys because a flour company sponsored them — the LBR also plays (in slightly amended form) as the Mello Joy Boys. (Mello Joy is the ur Cajun coffee, recently revived.) Their theme song is here.