May 26: Happy Birthday Miles Davis and John Wayne


We have a pair of legends as headliners today, each pictured with his “instrument” of choice.

Miles Davis (1926-1991), one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, began taking trumpet lessons at the age of 12.  He started at Juilliard in 1944 but soon dropped out to perform full time, playing with Charlie Parker among others.  By the late forties he was leading his own bands and issuing regular recordings on the Prestige label.  In 1955 a young saxophonist by the name of John Coltrane began playing with Davis; they collaborated for several years before Coltrane emerged as a leader himself.

In 1957, two of Davis’s most innovative and influential albums came out.  Capitol released Birth of the Cool, a set of sessions that had been recorded several years before, which contains exactly what the title promises—some of the tracks which define the sound called “cool” jazz.  The same year brought Davis’s first of many great albums with Columbia, ‘Round about Midnight, which exemplifies the “hard bop” style of jazz.

Two years later Davis, along with a combo that included Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans, among others, recorded Kind of Blue, often regarded as his greatest album ever, and sometimes said to be the best-selling jazz album of all time.  At this point in his career, Davis already ranked among the greatest jazz musicians ever, and he still had over thirty years of recording, performing, and innovating ahead of him.

Now, on to the Duke.  John Wayne (1907-1979) attended USC until an off-the-field injury cost him his football scholarship.  He had a shot at early stardom in Raoul Walsh’s Western The Big Trail in 1930, but the film was a failure.  He spent much of the 1930s making B-Westerns for Poverty Row studios like Monogram and Republic.  In 1939, director John Ford, who had given Wayne some of his first film roles, cast him in the starring role in the first Western he had directed since the silent era.

Stagecoach did not instantly make Wayne the biggest star in Hollywood, but it got him off of Poverty Row and into lead roles in major studio productions.  It was not until the late 1940s, when he worked with the other of the two directors who had the biggest influence on his career, Howard Hawks.  The success of Red River propelled Wayne to the top of the A-list—he made the top 10 on the annual Quigley’s List of the biggest box office draws every year but one from 1949-1974—and won him increased respect as an actor (Ford’s reported remark: “I never knew the big SOB could act”).

In the decade after Red River, Wayne made some of his most memorable pictures, including Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers, as well as  Rio Bravo (with Hawks), Sands of Iwo Jima (which brought him his first Oscar nomination), Hondo, and The High and the Mighty.  He remained a major star until the end of his career, winning his first and only Oscar for True Grit in 1969.

Pam Grier, who celebrates her 68th, was once known almost exclusively for blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown.  Then Quentin Tarantino cast her as the lead in Jackie Brown (for which she received a Golden Globe nomination), and she went on to star on The L Word as Kit Porter.  Two-time Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter turns 51 today.  Aside from her Oscar-nominated roles in The Wings of the Dove and The King’s Speech, she is known for her many films with Tim Burton, including playing the Red Queen in the Alice in Wonderland films.

Genie Francis, who is 55, is best known for her long run on General Hospital, where she plays one half of the greatest of all soap opera supercouples, Laura Spencer.  Elisabeth Harnois, who turns 38 today, was a juvenile star on the Disney Channel’s 1990s series Adventures in Wonderland, and more recently a regular on CSI for several seasons as Morgan Brody.  French-Spanish actress Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, known for her roles in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, turns 31.

Roy Dotrice turns 94.  The high point of his long stage and screen career was winning a Tony for playing Phil Hogan in the 2000 Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten.  He also played Leopold Mozart in the film of Amadeus and Roger Wyndam-Price on Angel.

Stevie Nicks, who is celebrating her 69th, is best known for her work as a singer and songwriter with Fleetwood Mac, but has also had a fruitful solo career, with eight solo albums including the hugely successful Bella Donna.  With the Mac, one of her biggest contributions was writing and singling lead on the band’s sole #1 single.

Hank Williams, Jr., the son of a country legend, has had a successful career in his own right, especially in the eighties when he was a six-time Grammy nominee.  He turns 68 today.  Lenny Kravitz, who won the Grammy for Best Male Rock Performance a record four consecutive times from 1999-2002, turns 53 today.  His acting credits include Cinna in the Hunger Games films.  Levon Helm (1940-2012) was the drummer and one of the vocalists for The Band.  He later had a solo career, winning three Grammys from 2007-11, and did some character acting in films like Coal Miner’s Daughter and Shooter.  English guitarist Mick Ronson (1946-1993) was best known as one of the Spiders From Mars, David Bowie’s backing band from the seventies, and also worked with Morrissey, Bob Dylan, and others.  Peggy Lee (1920-2002) was a jazz and traditional pop singer who had a number of hits in the forties such as “Why Don’t You Do Right?”  She is also known for her multiple contributions to Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.

Al Jolson (1886-1950) is best remembered as the star of the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, and was also a very popular recording artist of the early 20th century.  Norma Talmadge (1894-1957) was a leading silent film star, known for films like Smilin’ Through and Secrets.  Hungarian-born actor Paul Lukas (1894-1971) starred in the Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine and then won Best Actor for starring in the 1943 film adaptation.  Henry Ephron (1911-1992) was a playwright and screenwriter, an Oscar nominee for Captain Newman, M.D., and the father of recent headliner Nora Ephron.

Jay Silverheels (1912-1980) was one of the leading Native American/First Nations actors of his day; he appeared in films like Key Largo and Broken Arrow but is best known for playing Tonto on television’s The Lone RangerPeter Cushing (1913-1994) was the star of many of the Hammer Studio’s horror films of the fifties and sixties, such as The Curse of Frankenstein and the 1958 version of Dracula, and played Grand Moff Tarkin in Star WarsRobert Morley (1908-1992) was an Oscar nominee for the 1938 film Marie Antoinette and also known for The African Queen, Beat the Devil, and many other films.  James Arness (1923-2011) was a sometime protege of John Wayne, who recommended Arness for his most famous role, starring as Marshal Matt Dillon on the long-running TV Western Gunsmoke.  The late Alec McCowen (1925-2017) had a long stage career on both the West End and Broadway.  His film credits included Hitchcock’s Frenzy and the non-canon Bond film Never Say Never Again (as Algernon, the “Q” of that film).

If today is your birthday, congratulations on sharing your big day with these notable names.  Birthday wishes to everyone celebrating a big day today.  Come back tomorrow for more celebrity birthdays.


Posted on May 26, 2017, in Celebrity Birthdays and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. jeffthewildman

    Miles Davis. Kind Of Blue is one of the greatest albums of all-time.


  2. MIles Davis has such a long and productive career that it’s virtually impossible to do him justice in a few paragraphs. What I essentially decided to do was cover his first decade-plus here, with the thought of coming back next year to write more about his later career. And I agree 100% with Jeff about Kind of Blue.

    I always knew John Wayne was a big star, and I have had respect for him as an actor ever since the first time I watched The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. What I did not have a sense of until I started doing the birthday articles, and looking at sources like the Quigley’s lists, was how durable he was as a box-office draw. Only Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise even approach his record for remaining a top box office star for as long a period.

    Here’s a little John Wayne bonus content, from the movie that really made him a top-level star.

    Stevie Nicks probably deserved a more detailed write-up, given how big a figure she is in pop music in the seventies and eighties, but I didn’t have the time after addressing the two big legends of today’s article.

    Peter Cushing had a very famous costar in many of those Hammer Horror films, didn’t he? Maybe that individual will turn up here in the near future. 🙂


  3. Miles Davis, I learned, via Trivia Hive, that Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie invited him to play on stage with them when he was 17, replacing a sick bandmate, and that’s essentially how he got his start. Other than that, he’s one of those of which I know of the legend, but am unfamiliar with his work.
    John Wayne, I’m not a huge fan, but I do really like the film “McLintock!”.
    Pam Grier, I’m definitely a fan; I like a variety of her work, and I’m glad Quentin Tarrantino gave her a real strong vehicle in “Jackie brown” (in retrospect, there was some Pam Grier dialogue between the thieves in “Reservoir Dogs”, so he probably had her in mind for quite some time). I think she’s a real pop culture icon as well as a strong performer, who brings a real presence.
    Helena Bonham Carter, I probably like her best in “Fight Club”, and like Pam Grier, was in multiple episodes of “Miami Vice”.
    Elisabeth Harnois, I only viewed a few episodes of “C.S.I.”, but I remember her character.
    Stevie Nicks, I guess she isn’t a wiccan after all, but I still think she has a sexy , unconventional style. I especially like her 1980’s output, with songs like “Stand Back” & “Edge of Seventeen” (which is on the “Grand Theft Auto IV” soundtrack).
    Hank Williams, Jr., I like his song “Born to Boogie” and i always got a rise out of his “All My Rowdy Friends…” opening theme for “Monday night Football”.
    Lenny Kravitz, I think his “Are You Going My Way” album is fantastic, and I find his overall style to be both cool and unique.
    Peter Cushing, I thought he brought a lot to those Hammer films; long before Hammer Time, there was Peter Cushing and Hammer Films, in which Cushing used a stake instead of a hammer. I’m also glad he was in the first Star Wars film.


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