Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Powerhouse from Alabaster, Alabama (Part 3)

Wendy Holcombe's effort to become an all-around entertainer hit a couple of huge bumps in 1981-82.

First of all, in the summer of 1981, the pilot the Alabaster, AL native did for NBC, the sitcom Wendy Hooper, US Army, didn't get picked up (America's TV viewers hitched their wagons to another Army-based comedy, CBS' Private Benjamin, which presented Lorna Patterson in the role made famous by Goldie Hawn in the previous year's big-screen hit of that name). 

Had Wendy Hooper caught on, Holcombe (then 18 years old) would've been one of the youngest to ever get top billing on a prime-time sitcom on American television. (Jay North was just seven in 1959, the year he landed the show that gave him his fame: Dennis the Menace.)

Bill's and Helen's multiinstrumentalist-singer-comic daughter got a sitcom anyway when, on 10-29-1981, Lewis & Clark premiered on NBC.

The same viewers who kept WHUSA from joining the Peacock Network's 1981-82 schedule stayed with L&C's biggest Thursday-night competition, CBS' Magnum, P.I. (That crime drama- the one that made a household name out of Tom Selleck- survived its rookie campaign, the 1980-81 season.)

Not even a pair of time-slot changes could save Lewis & Clark, where Holcombe played a server (okay, waitress) in the Luckenback, TX nightclub run by Gabe Kaplan and Guich Koock.

Even if many people couldn't get into Wendy Holcombe the actor, they still fell head over heels in love with Wendy Holcombe the musician. And some extra proof of that came in 1983, when Wendy, her hubby Tom Blosser, and their band traveled to Israel to play alongside bluegrass legends Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman.

Not long after that, Tom and Wendy turned their 1983 travels into a world tour, focusing on Australia, New Zealand, and several Asian countries.

The closing act on that international tour: None other than Perry Como. 

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the banjo-playing wife and her bass-playing husband set up shop in Florida, only to move to North get closer to relatives. 

And a year or so before WLH and TYB set out for their overseas tour, Wendy Lou started hooking up with fellow banjoist Buck Trent.
Trent and Holcombe started touring together as well; their performances set that twosome up for a 1982 Music City News Bluegrass Act of the Year award nomination. Later on, the Country Music Association nominated them for Instrumentalists of the Year.  

All this time, Wendy was performing despite a degenerative heart condition (first diagnosed at an early age). 

By the middle 1980s, that heart condition (technically known as cardiomyopathy; in lay terms, enlargement of the heart) wasn't improving. 

Several times, an ambulance would arrive at the Holcombe-Blosser house to pick Wendy up...but she'd beat the odds whenever they were stacked against her recovery. 

Then came that ill-fated Saturday...the seventh Saturday of 1987.

Country music's much the poorer because of Wendy's 2-14-1987 death. The Alabaster Kid strove for perfection in everything she did...including in her musical endeavors. And that pursuit of perfection showed whenever she appeared in front of any kind of live audience or whenever Wendy appeared in front of a set of TV cameras. 

Even if you and I can't go online and find Holcombe's acting performances (you'll strike out on if you're looking for Lewis & Clark episodes), there's plenty of audio evidence (the posthumously-released CD "Memories of Wendy" is finally available...on as well as and plenty of video evidence right here on the Internet that Cindy's and "Muley's" sister was a powerful musician.

And a powerful, energetic, enthusiastic influence.

Wendy, I'm glad you came along...and I'm glad you brought so many great things.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Powerhouse from Alabaster, Alabama (Part 2)

It was 1980, and Nashville on the Road's Wendy Holcombe was knockin' 'em dead...not only on that syndicated TV show, but also as a guest on other series (as well as that 1979 ABC special, "Merry Christmas from the Grand Ole Opry," cohosted by WKRP in Cincinnati's Loni Anderson and Vega$' Bob Urich).

And then there were the personal appearances the Alabaster Kid made, where audiences got a chance- up close and personal- to check out her infectious brand of banjo pickin', fiddlin', guitar playing, and vocalizing.

One thing was still missing: A recording contract with a major or not-so-major label.

All Wendy's NOTR partners were cutting sides. I mean, Jim Ed Brown was still recording for RCA (he was heading for 25 years with the label...going back to when Jim Ed and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie were a trio, the Browns). Helen Cornelius joined RCA in 1976 and immediately teamed up with Jim Ed; the next year (same one in which the label's biggest star passed away at age 42), Helen became a regular on Nashville on the Road. 

Jerry Clower's comedy albums (on MCA) were selling pretty well, too.

But you still couldn't go to your favorite record store and pick up Holcombe's latest LP/8-track cartridge/cassette.

There was no such thing (unless you were into bootlegging).

But you could still watch WLH on TV...not only on NOTR,

but also on shows like Hee Haw. 

About the time Wendy started doing guest shots on Roy Clark's and Buck Owens' biggest gig, she met a bass player named Thomas Yoshiro Blosser (he turned 29 in 1980). Not long after that initial Hee Haw taping, Tom started playing bass in Wendy's band. 

Tom already had a pedigree in country music, backing up some of the music's biggest names (such as Louise Mandrell).

TYB (born Yoshiro Sudo) came into the world 11-3-1951 in Muroran, Japan; in 1957, a Mennonite missionary couple named Eugene and Louella Blosser adopted him...and changed the little boy's name. 

In Muroran, Tom had a biological brother and a biological sister...and they were all raised by their grandmother once the children's parents passed out of the picture. 

Toward the end of '57, Louella and Eugene (whose biological children were Philip and Rachel), living and parenting- to say nothing of doing missionary work- in Japan at the time, got the chance to add another child to their family (a prospect that lighted little Philip's fire).

Enter Yoshiro/Tom.

And he and Phil hit it off immediately.

By 1959, the Blossers of Sapporo started making regular trips to the United States...and on one of those, Thomas became a naturalized American citizen. 

Back in Japan, Phil and Tom eventually attended middle school in Sapporo before going on to high school in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, they found out that Tom had chops- he could play a mean guitar. In fact, he and his older adopted brother finished off a talent show at the high school by singing "Mrs. Robinson."

The fundamentalists in the audience weren't looking for that.

Phil and Tom next went to in the US. Tom chose a two-year institution, Hesston College (in Hesston, KS). 

It didn't really work out.

TYB's heart was in music, and he spent most of the 1970s playing guitar and bass (mostly bass) in all sorts of bands- rock, R&B, and country. 

It all stood him in good stead by the time he and Wendy got together.

And it wasn't long before Blosser's and Holcombe's musical relationship became a marital one, too.

But first...Wendy had a chance to fulfill her dream of becoming a complete entertainer.

In 1981, NBC offered Cindy's and "Muley's" sister her own TV series: Wendy Hooper, US Army. It was all about an outgoing, banjo-playing girl who thought that joining the Army would advance her country-music career.

The pilot episode aired on Friday, 8-14-1981. (I had a chance to watch it...and I didn't think Wendy Hooper was too bad.)

The show's other viewers and I were badly outnumbered. After all, the WHUSA pilot came on four months and eight days after CBS turned Goldie Hawn's 1980 romp, "Private Benjamin," into a full-fledged series. 

With Lorna Patterson (you might remember her from another 1980 movie, "Airplane!") taking over from Hawn, most of America's TV viewers didn't feel like supporting two prime-time sitcoms about young women coming in from left field to join the branch that gave Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell their first tastes of fame. 

And besides, "Airplane!" showed that Patterson could sing and play the guitar, too. 

Peacock Network potentates weren't done trying to turn Wendy Lou Holcombe into an actor. Her next acting try, Lewis & Clark, made it into the 1981-82 NBC schedule.

Lewis & Clark (it debuted 10-29-1981) was Gabe Kaplan's followup to Welcome Back, Kotter and the series Guich Koock did after Carter Country. In addition, the show featured a pre-Mr. Belvedere Ilene Graff (as Kaplan's wife) and an Amy Linker who, as things turned out, was one season away from teaming up with Sarah Jessica Parker on the critically-acclaimed Square Pegs. 

And David Hollander (he, too, from "Airplane!") was along to play Linker's brother.

Anyway, Kaplan played a native New Yorker who wanted to open up a country-music nightclub...but not in the Big Apple.

The club was going to be in Luckenback, TX...away from Fun City's hustle and bustle.

Well, the nitery was called the Nassau County Cafe. And Koock played its manager, while Holcombe was its sole server (okay, waitress). 

Despite a shift from Thursday nights to Saturday nights (and then one to Friday nights), L&C never caught on...probably because viewers thought Gabe needed better "Sweathogs" than Wendy, Guich, Clifton James (the show's town drunk), and Michael McManus (the bartender).

To top it off, Julie Kotter (played by Marcia Strassman) never had kids!

So it was back to playing and singing country and bluegrass for Wendy Holcombe...with her new hubby, Thomas Blosser, by her side on bass.

When we come back, we'll look at how Wendy's last years turned out. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Powerhouse from Alabaster, Alabama (Part 1)

For the last week and a half, I'd been thinking about a young performer who was a regular on a syndicated TV series called Nashville on the Road. She was a regular on this country music show from its debut in 1975 to 1981 (NOTR limped along for another two years afterwards). 

At first, the show's cohosts were singer Jim Ed Brown and comic Jerry Clower; every week, they'd introduce a guest or two (as well as the show's two regular acts).

That's right...I like almost all forms of music, and that includes country. 

One late Saturday night in 1976, I was flipping channels...and ran into Nashville on the Road, which, at that time, was locally (the Des Moines/Ames area) on WOI-TV, the Des Moines/Ames area's ABC station. 

I noticed this thirteen-year-old girl who was picking a mean, mean banjo and moving along to her own (and her bandmates') beat.

She hooked me...and things got to the point where, every Saturday night at 10:30 PM (Central time), I'd flip the station over to "ABC5" and check out Jim Ed, Jerry, the Cates Sisters (their successors, the Fairchilds, were replaced in 1977 by singer Helen Cornelius), and that young instrumentalist-singer-comic.

Instead of getting ready to blow out 53 candles this coming 4-19-2016, Wendy Lou Holcombe passed away on 2-14-1987.

At age 23.

Of a heart attack. 

At the time Wendy died, I was into my first stint of living here in Omaha...and working two jobs (I was an inventory specialist and a pizza-delivery driver at this time in 1987). I was coming back from my job at Domino's (that's right, THAT Domino's) when I turned on my TV, started flipping through channels, and I stopped at The Nashville Network...the forerunner of today's Spike.

When the news came on about the death of the most famous performer to ever come out of Alabaster, AL, I was completely flabbergasted.

Wendy Holcombe- that total bundle of energy- dead? At 23? Of heart failure? How'd that happen?  

Then I got to thinking about the fact that not one single sizable recording company offered her a contract. 

What stopped the record industry's Billy Sherrills, Owen Bradleys, and Chet Atkinses from having Holcombe sign her John Hancock to a recording contract? If not age, what? 

I still, to this very day, feel it all came down to dirty rotten, filthy sexism.

I mean, at a time when Dolly Parton, Barbara Mandrell, and Roni Stoneman (she of Hee Haw fame) were showing what they could do with five strings, the thinking in corporate boardrooms was (and, in too many cases, still is) that a banjo is a man's instrument. After all, Uncle Dave Macon, Grandpa Jones, and Earl Scruggs led the way. (Oops...I should've mentioned Earl first!)

A man's instrument.

That was the way it was supposed to work out in the house where Bill and Helen Holcombe were raising their three children when, sometime in 1974, Bill brought a used banjo home (it even came with an instruction booklet and an instruction record). 

Bill struggled for two months to be the next Roy Clark or, well, Earl Scruggs...but, in the end, he couldn't even get one tune down. Wendy begged for the chance to see what she could do with that banjo, only to get turned down by her father: "This banjo is too expensive for you to fool around with."

Wendy found an ally in her mother.

Helen let the then eleven-year-old pick around with Bill's pride-and-joy while Bill was off at his nine-to-five. By the time that afternoon session came to end, Wendy mastered "Mountain Dew" and other numbers her dad tried to learn.

And when Bill came home from his job, he was so impressed with Wendy's version of "Dew" that he let her keep the same banjo he'd struggled with.

Helen's and Bill's little daughter practiced on that banjo day and night; she'd take it out to the Holcombes' barn and try her music out on her cows, goats, and horses. 

It paid off, because Wendy went on to win $50 at a county fair talent show...and that led to her going to nearby Birmingham to appear on TV's The Country Boy Eddie Show. 

WLH's big break was just up the road...Interstate 65, that is.

After seven months of pickin', Wendy wanted to go to Nashville's Grand Ole Opry to celebrate her twelfth birthday.

Bill and Wendy couldn't get tickets (you needed- and still need- to get those ducats in advance), so father and daughter decided to hang around Music City for a few hours. At the first music shop they ran into, WLH saw a snazzy-looking banjo and asked for permission to test it out.

Holcombe's version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" attracted the bass player in Stoneman's band. He then took the young picker and her dad to a nightclub, where she played a few songs onstage...while "Billy Jack" met a promoter who said he could get the Two Holcombes backstage at Opryland.

That's where Wendy Holcombe met Roy Acuff.

Next thing she knew, she ended up backstage playing alongside his Smoky Mountain Boys, Jones, and several other Opry regulars. And that led to an appearance the next night at the "Midnight Jamboree" at Ernest Tubb's Record Shop.

And that spawned appearances on two other TV shows: The Porter Wagoner Show and Pop! Goes the Country. 

And then...and the fall of '75: NOTR, put out by the same production company that came up with Pop! Goes the Country. 

Because of Nashville on the Road, Wendy Lou closed out 1975 by fulfilling her lifelong wish.

She performed at the Grand Ole Opry. 

On the main stage this time.

And what's more, Wendy Lou worked alongside Jim Ed at the Opry that night.

With Nashville on the Road becoming a hit, things continued to look up for "Muley's" and Cindy's kid sister, who went on to master the fiddle, the guitar, the mandolin, and the dobro...and topped that off by playing trumpet in her school's band back in Alabaster. 

All of that from a teenager who, at first, took piano lessons.

And as the 1970s started to morph into the 1980s, Wendy wanted to become a total entertainer. (She wanted to try acting...and in the process, follow Johnny Cash.)

Non-NOTR TV appearances began to mount up for the Alabaster Kid; they included turns on shows like Big Blue Marble, The Mike Douglas Show, and The New Mickey Mouse Club. And in 1979, she appeared on a Christmas special on ABC; the show was hosted by none other than Loni Anderson, of WKRP in Cincinnati fame; and Robert Urich, who was knocking 'em dead on that network's (ABC's) Vega$.  

Well, a guest shot on Hee Haw took Wendy's life in another direction...and we're going to look at that direction when we come back.

SHOUT-OUT TIME: A lot of this information came from an excellent Website, (Check it out whenever you get a chance!)