Quincy Jones: Quintessence

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Quincy Jones at Avatar Studios, New York 2001
By Jimmy Katz
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Quincy Jones
By Jimmy Katz
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Quincy Jones
By Jimmy Katz

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You can see almost all of Los Angeles from Quincy Jones’ home atop the highest hill in the ultraexclusive Beverly Hills enclave of Bel Air.

And you can see signposts of his remarkable career, which began in 1951 when he joined Lionel Hampton’s big band as an 18-year-old trumpeter, when you walk down the staircase leading to Jones’ poolside lounge and adjoining recreation room.

These include a display case with his 26 Grammy awards; the eye-popping 40 platinum albums he has thus far received for producing Michael Jackson’s epic Thriller in 1982, and several signed paintings by Miles Davis, Jones’ longtime friend and erstwhile musical partner.

Then there are the posters for such Oscar-nominated films as 1967’s In Cold Blood (which Jones scored), and 1985’s The Color Purple (which he scored and co-produced). Nearby is the framed lyric sheet and music for the 1985 pop anthem “We Are the World.” It bears the autographs of many of the four-dozen stars—from Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner to Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen—who, under producer Jones’ careful supervision, recorded the song in a single, 10-hour session.

On another wall is his prestigious Polar Music Prize, which was presented to him in 1994 by the King of Sweden, as well as a slew of photos of Jones with such famed friends and collaborators as Ray Charles, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Alice Walker, Steven Spielberg and others.

But perhaps the best insight into this quintessential American Renaissance man is contained in the four words Jones used to greet me at his home: “Bebop is spoken here.”

This theme recurs throughout his absorbing new book, Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (Doubleday). More than four years in the making, the nearly 400-page opus leaves no doubt about his abiding love for the music that irrevocably changed jazz—and Jones himself—in the mid-1940s. And it reaffirms that jazz has been a constant throughout his storied career, which has seen him ascend to the highest levels of achievement without losing touch with the vital musical roots that continue to guide and inspire him to this day.

A handsome man with a nearly wrinkle-free face and a warm, engaging disposition, Jones is 68 but looks a good 15 years younger. He’s old enough to have grown up idolizing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, but young at heart enough to embrace the best of hip-hop, electronica and other au courant styles.

He is also enlightened enough to draw astute parallels between bop and rap, two of the many styles he showcased on his landmark 1989 album, Back on the Block (which featured everyone from Sarah Vaughan and Joe Zawinul to Ice-T and Kool Moe Dee), and on its 1995 sequel, Q’s Jook Joint. And he is unconcerned about purists and skeptics who don’t share the all-encompassing aesthetic approach he has embraced throughout his life.

“Jazz, R&B, jump-blues, funk—it all feels the same to me,” says Jones, whose multifaceted career attests to his stylistic diversity and open-mindedness. “Ella, Basie, Louis Jordan, [Johnny Otis’] ‘Harlem Nocturne,’ [Wynonie Harris’] ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight.’ Shit, man, it’s all the same stuff. Growing up, I knew everything Louis Jordan did, and everything Dizzy ever did. Bebop, blues, pop, marching band stuff, we were on it when I was growing up in Seattle. So it did not matter what style it was, it really didn’t.”

Even so, Jones is quick to acknowledge there was something extra-special about bebop that drew him to the music and its players, which he likens to a fraternal club that was both earthy and elite.

“It was beautiful,” he says, recalling the halcyon days of bop. “And it had everything in it—your dignity, your sense of humor, your talent and freedom. It was empowering, and it was one of the greatest solutions to the racist shit back then, too. It was a whole ’nother world.

“There was something about bebop that was hip and aware and right on top of everything,” he continues, sipping from a glass of iced tea. “It was a kind of language we spoke to each other, and I loved that. Even before I participated in it, I could feel that communal family thing—‘Bebop is spoken here.’ And I see in my kids the same excitement for hip-hop that I had for bebop.”

Bebop is spoken here would make an apt subtitle for Jones’ autobiography, were it not for the fact he long ago transcended any one style of music. His catholic tastes are emphasized throughout his book, as well as on the Rhino Records compilation, Q: The Musical Biography of Quincy Jones. The four-CD set offers an enticing aural overview of Jones’ career in jazz, pop, R&B and the worlds of film and TV scoring and production.

Accompanied by a lengthy biographical essay and comprehensive recording credits, it features his work as a composer, arranger, conductor and producer with everyone from Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie and Clifford Brown to Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Frank Sinatra. Among the many highlights are choice cuts by Sarah Vaughan (a sumptuous “Misty”), Louis Armstrong (the uplifting “Faith”); Oscar Pettiford (the aptly titled “Swingin’ Till the Girls Come Home”); and Jones and his all-star big band (a brassy “Moanin’,” and a svelte rendition of “Makin’ Whoopee,” the latter featuring Dinah Washington).

Also included is a sampling of his vivid film scores (including The Pawnbroker, In the Heat of the Night and Cactus Flower) and television themes (Ironside, Sanford & Son and Roots), as well as selections from his various solo releases and from albums he produced for such artists as George Benson, Rufus and The Brothers Johnson.

The 74-song collection begins, fittingly, with Jones’ first recorded work, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra’s 1941’s version of “Kingfish.” Significantly, it is the four-CD set’s sole selection to feature Jones on trumpet, an instrument that quickly took a backseat to his richly textured writing and arranging.

Asked how he now regards his work on “Kingfish,” Jones leans back in a tree-shaded chair at the edge of his swimming pool and grins.

“I’d say: ‘That’s not bad for an 18-year-old dude’,” he replies with a chuckle. “I’m happy, man. You always will [want to] make it better. You’ll say: ‘Well this part is a little dumb,’ but you can say that about everything.

“I couldn’t believe how unafraid I was,” he continues, recalling his maiden recording session with Hampton. “It was like, something just felt right about it. I’d been practicing eights bars of the arrangement at a time on one-nighters, to make sure it was how I wanted it to sound. Because I was just getting started, and this was the big time. You go with Hamp, and there’s serious musicians around, man.”

The four-CD collection also features two choice cuts from the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where Jones was then acting as co-producer with festival founder Claude Nobbs. The first is Miles Davis’ sumptuous rendition of “Springsville,” originally from his classic Miles Ahead album, and features Jones conducting the Gil Evans Orchestra. It was recorded just three months before Davis died, and was part of the only concert at which the legendary trumpeter revisited the fabled music from the albums he made with Evans.

“Miles was like Dracula at the blood bank. He was so happy, and so was I,” says Jones, who had spent several years convincing Davis to tackle his daunting work with Evans live on stage.

“We were friends for many years, but I had never worked with Miles before on anything, and it was an incredible experience. And I swear to God, he actually smiled and waved to the audience. I caught him in the act, so I grabbed a microphone, and said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Miles Davis!’ And he looked over at me, and said: ‘Fuck you.’ But later he said to me: ‘Let’s take this [concert] all over the world.’ He loved it. We had no idea he was sick. He was an amazing, amazing man.”

The other selection included from the 1991 Montreux festival is Ray Charles’ previously unreleased version of “My Buddy.” Jones had originally arranged the Gus Kahn/Walter Donaldson song in 1959 for inclusion on The Genius of Ray Charles, but it was somehow left off the final version of the album. Still another surprise, and one Jones is especially proud of, is a 38-year-old recording he only recently learned existed.

“Someone discovered a copy of Duke Ellington’s version of ‘The Midnight Sun Will Never Set’,” he says, speaking excitedly of the composition he co-wrote with Henri Salvador and Dorcas Cochran. “Duke! I had no idea he ever heard this song, let alone cut it with his band in 1963. Wow.”

The son of a master carpenter and a brilliant but emotionally disturbed mother whom he seldom saw, Quincy Delight Jones Jr. was born on the Southside of Chicago on March 14, 1933. The Depression made hard times even harder for millions of families struggling to survive, and Jones’ was no exception. Matters were exacerbated when his troubled mother was institutionalized.

His father subsequently sent nine-year-old Quincy and his younger brother, Lloyd, to stay with their grandmother in Louisville, Ky. The two boys lived with her in a shotgun shack near the Ohio River. There was no heat in the winter, sweltering temperatures in the summer and a catch-as-catch-can diet that sometimes included fried rats.

But the challenges of his youth didn’t prevent Jones from developing a budding passion for jazz and blues even before his Kentucky sojourn. His mother instilled an appreciation for music in him early on, which was furthered by a young neighbor (and aspiring pianist) who lived next door to the Jones family in Chicago.

That neighbor, Lucy Jackson, describes her friendship with Jones in his autobiography. The book alternates between chapters of first-person reminiscences by Jones, and chapters of first-person reminiscences by his brother, various musical cohorts (including Ray Charles and Jerome Richardson), Jones’ two ex-wives (Jeri Caldwell-Jones and Peggy Lipton), daughters Kidada and Rashida, and son Quincy III.

Recalling Jones’ precocious musical aptitude, former neighbor Jackson writes: “Looking back, I think the only reason he played ball with me is because I had the only piano [on our street]. Our houses were connected, and he hear me playing stride piano through the walls one day and I couldn’t keep him off my piano after that, though I tried…. My mother would say, ‘That boy is seven years old and you’re 12 and he marches in here and plays so easy! What am I wastin’ my time for?’ Even then Quincy had a gift. He didn’t know it yet, but music was in his soul. It came natural to him.”

Still, it would take a few more years before Jones had his first musical catharsis, an event that occurred shortly after he and his brother moved across the country with their father to the Washington port town of Bremerton, outside Seattle. Only 11 at the time, Jones was a poor student, more attracted to gang life than the arts. But all that changed when he and some neighborhood pals broke into a neighborhood recreation center, where he discovered a battered piano that would prove far more significant to him than Lucy Jackson’s.

“Until I was 10 I had been in Chicago, where I was subliminally getting fed the sounds of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, and I didn’t even know it; I had to go back and find out who they were,” Jones recalls, picking up the story. “And my grandmother in St. Louis had an old Victrola record player that she played a lot of blues on, and stuff like ‘The Dirty Dozens,’ which we finally ended up using in (the soundtrack for) The Color Purple.

“All those things would just sort of leak in, without my paying attention, because we were messing around and getting in trouble with gangs and everything. And then in Seattle, we vandalized this recreation center. After we ate all the pie and ice cream we could find, we started to prowl around. And I found a room—it must have been the administration room—and opened it up, and there was a little piano. It was kind of dark, and I just put my fingers on it and rubbed the keys.

“And I felt, I don’t know how to describe it,” he says, pausing for thought. “Up until then, our favorite instruments were switchblades and slingshots, because we were from Chicago. But from that moment on with the piano, it just opened up something in me that was probably a replacement for not having a mother. I don’t know what it was, but it was so strong. And I knew that whatever happened, that little [creative] place—whatever I made out of it—was my place. And nothing could take it from me or change me or harm me [after that], because that place was always there.”

Hooked, Jones returned time and again to the recreation center, where he spent virtually every spare moment at the piano. After briefly trying violin and clarinet in school, he moved through an array of other instruments—from drums and sousaphone to French horn and trombone—before settling on the trumpet.

Almost concurrently, he began babysitting for a local music teacher, primarily so that he could read the teacher’s books on arranging by Glenn Miller and film scoring by Frank Skinner. But Jones also learned by the age-old method of falling on his face, figuratively speaking.

“When I was about 13 I wrote this whole suite called ‘The Four Winds,’ and didn’t know that they had flats and sharps designed for the keys,” he says. “So I put a note right on the top of the part, with a big asterisk, and it said: ‘Play all B’s a half-step lower, because they sound funny if you play B naturals’. “

He chortled as he scolds himself, more than 50 years after the fact. “You idiot, you put a flat on the third line!” Jones said of his first composition, which only two years later would earn him an invitation to join Lionel Hampton’s band and, later, a college scholarship.

His expression grew more serious when he was asked to compare and contrast how it feels to create music today with his fledgling efforts in Seattle. “A lot of musicians in America, they go to bed with the music first and they record it later,” Jones replies. “And that feeling of discovering and searching and finally committing to put it down on paper, and having a band play it, that feeling never goes away. Never.

“Clark Terry, my teacher and idol, and me were talking about this very topic two years ago, and how that feeling of discovery is still the same. Because as a writer, you’re used to being in one of three places: worse than you thought it was going to sound; exactly like you thought it was going to sound; and better—‘Damn, I didn’t know it was that good!’

“So you constantly get hit with those three things. You get your chops after a while, so you know how it’s going to sound most of the time. But then you keep trying to develop that and discovering it. As a kid I just always wanted to know: ‘Why do big saxophone sections sound like that?’ Or: ‘Why do the bass trombones sound like this on the bottom?’”

His innate curiosity only fueled his enthusiasm for all things musical. Jones also quickly realized that jazz offered him a vehicle for personal liberation as well as creative fulfillment.

“I used to sneak into every dance in Seattle,” he recalls, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “Skinnay Ennis, Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, Woody Herman, all of them, man. All night long. That’s where you found your identity, because there was no TV then. And the books didn’t have any black people in them, at all, not in 1943. So you tried to find out who you are. If you don’t have a mother to tell you who you are, you gotta figure it out yourself. So the music turned out to be the family.”

Jones soon befriended Ray Charles, who was just two years older than him but already living in his own Seattle apartment and supporting himself from music. Jones also became a member of one of two bands led by Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, who later was instrumental in the careers of Little Richard and Sam Cooke.

As a trumpeter in Blackwell’s “junior band,” he gained invaluable experience performing pop, R&B, bebop and more, and even got to accompany Billie Holiday at a Seattle gig. A subsequent opportunity to go on the road with the Hampton band was thwarted when Hampton’s wife and manager, Gladys, discovered the 15-year-old Jones on the band’s bus.

She admonished the fresh-faced trumpeter and fledgling composer/arranger to finish his schooling, and then made him get off the bus before it had even left the downtown Seattle parking lot. “I was devastated,” Jones says with a shake of his head, recounting the 53-year-old disappointment as if it had happened just last week. “Devastated.”

But this setback proved only temporary. While finishing high school, he received a music scholarship to Seattle University. After finding the curriculum too formal and unchallenging, Jones got another scholarship, this time to Boston’s Schillinger House, which would later be renamed Berklee College of Music.

His classmates in Boston included such gifted young lions as Herb Pomeroy and Charlie Mariano. A few months later Jones befriended noted bop bassist Oscar Pettiford at a local nightclub, and—a few months after that—went to New York to do two arrangements for a Pettiford recording date produced by Leonard Feather. Jones’ fee was just $20, but the real payoff was the opportunity to finally visit the jazz mecca he had dreamed about for so long.

“It was Disneyland!” he says, recalling his first New York visit with childlike delight. “It was so bright. Now it’s real dark. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed so bright. And all the theaters were smokin’, man. They had Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, the Mills Brothers, Slappy White, Moms Mabley, Woody, everybody, man. They’d rise up out of the orchestra pit, and it was like, shit! It really was like being in heaven. That was the life, man.”

And soon it was his life, twenty-four/seven. In 1951, still only 17, he joined Hampton’s band at last. Two years later they toured Europe. Nothing would be the same for Jones again.

“The best education I ever got was to be on the road with Hamp,” he affirms, leaning forward in his chair. “We went everywhere on the planet. And you find out that everybody is on a frequency range. It’s not about nationality, race or any of that. It’s a frequency range, and you have common goals and interests. You’d ask: ‘Do you like this kind of food? These kinds of girls? This kind of music?’ And they’d say: ‘Yeah. You too?’

“It’s very simple. There are people you connect with, and people you don’t connect with, at all. And the connection has to be there. It sounds like something you go to school for, to study how to deal with people, but that’s not what it’s about.”

Finding the right frequencies to connect with people, musically and personally, would prove to be a defining strength of Jones’ throughout his career. After leaving Hampton’s band, he became an arranger for a who’s who of jazz greats, including James Moody, Sonny Stitt, King Pleasure, Art Farmer, Milt Jackson and his pal from Seattle, Ray Charles.

At the same time, he was also working with such noted R&B artists as Chuck Willis, Brook Benton and Big Maybelle, whose rousing, Jones-produced version of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” from 1955 is included on the Rhino collection. He was happy to take almost any session offered to him, regardless of style, both because of his passion for music and out of sheer necessity.

“I’d get calls the same day from Sonny Stitt as I did from Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun to do an R&B session for Atlantic Records,” Jones recalls. “I was also working with [doo-wop vocal group] the Penguins for five dollars an hour, rehearsing with them. We were starving to death, man! And everybody was trying to work. I remember Jon Hendricks, Milt Jackson, myself and Ernestine Anderson singing R&B vocal-group backgrounds. It was amazing what we did.”

In 1956 Dizzy Gillespie hired Jones, then all of 23, to serve as musical director and arranger for Gillespie’s now-legendary State Department-sponsored tours of the Middle East and South America. A year later Jones began a two-year stay in Paris, where he worked as the musical director for Barclay Records.

Nearly as significant were his Paris studies with famed composition instructor Nadia Boulanger, whose other students over the years included Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Maurice Ravel and Brazil’s Egberto Gismonti. Jones’ stay in France also gave him his first opportunity to score for films and orchestras, laying the foundation for the multifaceted career that would help make him an enduring American cultural figure in the decades after he returned to the United States in 1960.

“Europe has a culture, and America really doesn’t know what its culture is,” Jones says, furrowing his brow. “See, the major thing about black music here is, it’s more sociology than musicology, because it’s the result of sociology—a direct result. And I guess, given the pattern of what our sociology was, if something originated with black people in a bordello, you know it wasn’t shit. Because even the black people don’t think it was anything. So it wasn’t actually documented like it was ever anything [of value], and just try to go back and find out what the hell happened.

“It’s a mess. It really is, man, and it’s getting worse,” he laments. “The Europeans at this point are ready to say, ‘Hey, guys, we’ll take jazz from here. You don’t know what the hell to do with it.’ That’s the way the Europeans feel now. And I remember when they were just drooling over Bird and Duke and everybody. And now, they have some amazing musicians over there. Clearly, they are coming from a cultured society. And this is not a cultured society, at all.

“So one of the missions I feel very, very strongly about—until the day I die, and from here on in—is to find a way to communicate with younger kids here to be proud of what their heritage is about, because, man, that’s step one for self-esteem. And we’ve got big self-esteem problems now, because there’s nothing else to hold onto. I’m around all the different cultures in our country all the time, because I have kids from eight to 48, and my son’s a hip-hop producer who’s worked with Tupac, Ice Cube, everybody. So there are no strange territories for me, ever, at all, and—somehow—they belong together. But most people can’t take them together; it’s too eclectic for them.”

The turning point for Jones’ career came in 1963. That was the year he was hired to score his first American film, The Pawnbroker; produced his first pop hit, Leslie Gore’s chart-topping “It’s My Party”; and earned the first of his many Grammy Awards for his arrangement of the Count Basie Orchestra’s version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The rest is history.

Jones went on to become one of this country’s preeminent creative forces. Today he oversees an empire that includes his own record label and broadcasting and TV production companies. He is also the publisher of Vibe and Spin and is pursuing new ventures in multimedia and on the Internet, as well as working on a Broadway musical based on the life of Sammy Davis Jr.

“You should know what you can do, and what you can’t do,” says Jones, when asked to evaluate his strengths and weaknesses. “And what you can’t do, you try to find the people who are the best in the world to do that. To me, that’s logical, that makes sense.

“I guess it boils down to being lucky enough to have enough victories to keep you going. Because a lot of steps that lead to defeat make you introverted and make you retreat. And it’s just the opposite when you take a chance, take a step and have that step become victorious. And when you win, you’re almost there. The next step you make will be a giant step, because that’s the way we’re built as human beings—that promise we have inside of us that God put there.

“Stravinsky said that the big responsibility of an artist is to be a great observer and really pay attention. Pay attention! The things that have guided my life are to pay attention, be true to yourself and figure it out. That’s really what it’s about. My life was messed up when I was young, but so what? Get over it. Figure it out. Just inhale every second of life.”

Still a whirlwind of activity at 68, Jones is clearly not the retiring type. “You can’t have any intention to retire,” he says, almost sputtering at the thought. “Retiring is preparing to die. I’m still searching, and I’m never finished.”

The In Crowd

From Cannonball Adderley to Dinah Washington, Quincy Jones has worked with a who’s who of music greats over the past five decades. Here are his comments on some of his favorite collaborators.

Ray Charles: “He’s my brother, man. I feel like we’re part of the same molecule. We dreamed together and played together when we were kids in Seattle. I was telling everybody about him when I first got out to Manhattan. And two years later, I didn’t need to say anything, because it was over, he was there. He was with Lowell Fulson and I was with Hamp. We did everything we talked about—movies, working with symphony orchestras—everything we dreamed about.”

Lionel Hampton: “Gates. He was a funny dude, really a genius player. He was one of the best vibes players who ever lived, and a great bandleader. He was in another world. Because this was a guy that had Mingus, Fats Navarro, Wes Montgomery, Clifford Brown—the most incredible dudes in the world in his band—and he worked harder than anybody. We’d do 70 straight one-nighters, man, and we only got paid $17 a night when we worked.”

Jerome Richardson: “I’ve known Jerome since I was 13. Everything I ever did, up until he died, Jerome was on it. All the records, hundreds and hundreds of record dates in New York. He was a great, great musician, and the first jazz flute player to be recorded. I know there’s some question about that in Herbie Mann’s book. Jerome was never sure, but I checked it out. And it was not Herbie, but Jerome, in ’51 or ’52.”

James Moody: “Moody! To this day, I hear his name and it just warms me up. He went out of his way to help me. He saved my ass when I came to New York, after leaving Hamp. Dinah Washington heard Moody’s stuff that I arranged, and she hired me and got me more into the record business. I remember I was really having a rough time, and he had a gig in Philadelphia. And he called and said: ‘We have a 10-musician minimum. Would you mind going there with us, and just sitting on the stage?’ It was so sweet of him. That shit you never forget, as long as you live.”

Dinah Washington: “Dinah should be alive now, because she would have been ready for the 21st century. She should’ve been a rapper! And she was such a sweet friend, tough as she was. I just love her. She came through Hamp’s band, too, so we always had a strong bond. She fought for me when I was starting out as an arranger.”

Oscar Pettiford: “I wished he had lived longer. I met Oscar when I was about 17. He heard some of my stuff, and took me to New York for the first time. That was the biggest move of my life, going to New York, and Oscar was just so generous and giving to me. He was a giant jazz musician. And he always used to kid Mingus, and get Mingus so mad. He said: ‘Man, the Indians are stuck with jazz now,’ and he and Mingus would get into physical fights. ‘The Indians!’ Because Mingus was half-Indian, you know.”

Bumps Blackwell: “Bumps started it all for me. There’s another unique human being. When I first met him, he had a butcher shop, worked at a jewelry store in downtown Seattle, had a chain of taxicabs, worked at Boeing, and had a junior and a senior band. We became the junior band, and we started working with Billie Holiday when I was about 14 or 15, and then with Billy Eckstine and Cab Calloway. I mean, we thought we were hot stuff when we were little, because we worked real hard. We had a tight band, and we got lucky.”

Sarah Vaughan: “Like Ella, a musician who also could deal with lyrics. They weren’t particularly fond of lyrics, though. Sassy and Ella appreciated a good lyric, don’t get me wrong. But they wanted to be musicians first. The personal times I had with Sassy are just as strong as the musical times.”

Frank Sinatra: “That’s the guy I thought would never leave here. Even at the end, when we knew it was going to happen, we could never imagine him going away, because he was bigger than life. He was the most human person I’ve ever known, but there was something about his persona that was so huge, in every way. He was one of the purest artists I know. And we partied as hard as we worked together. That was as good as it gets, because he could do both of those very well! He was straight-up; he had no gray. Billy Eckstine was like that, and Ray Charles is like that. Frank would either love you or roll over your ass in a jeep, in reverse. There was nothin’ in the middle, man.”

Originally published in October 2001

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