Gary James' Interview With Talk Show Host
From 1968 to 1974, Dick Cavett hosted a talk show on the ABC TV network. He interviewed everybody, and I mean everybody. He interviewed John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to name just a few. His interviews are thought-provoking, which is why he carries the title of The Thinking Man's talk show Host.
Q - There's a new documentary out on the Rolling Stones that's been shown on HBO. It's called Crossfire Hurricane. Have you seen it?
A - I didn't know it was on. I think they were supposed to send me a DVD of it. A doctor friend of mine said he waited up later than he ever has to see it and all I got was you! He said jokingly. I opened the show with Mick Jagger?
Q - Yes, you do.
A - (laughs)
Q - That interview goes back to 1972. So, you haven't seen it yet, have you?
A - It's on my, you know I'm not a plug artist, Dick Cavett Show Rock Icons DVD box set and a lot of other great stuff. So, I've seen it, but I don't know how much of it they used in the documentary. Do you see me asking if he still is going to be doing this silly stuff when he's 60 years old?
Q - They didn't show that, but I certainly remember you asking that. You ask him if he would still be performing like he does at the age of 60, and he said "sure."
A - How silly of them not to use it.
Q - Because that is such a timely answer.
A - Yeah.
Q - After Mick answered "Sure," how your audience roared with laughter.
A - The idea of a 60-year-old man tottering on stage with a cane. (laughs).
Q - They couldn't envision Mick Jagger carrying on the way he has.
A - No, they couldn't. (laughs) What do they have in that's better than that?
Q - You were standing outside one of their venues. Did you go on the road with them?
A - No. It was at The Garden. (Madison Square Garden).
Q - Did you go backstage with The Stones?
A - Yeah. I think they shot Mick's entrance with me, patting him on the shoulder or something. He went out and the place exploded.
Q - There were celebrities backstage. Truman Capote I believe.
A - He was on stage at one Stones show I saw. I just read the Vanity Fair piece on Truman Capote's self-destruction and death. Kind of moving. He was still rather healthy then.
Q - He actually went on the road with The Stones in 1972. He was on the plane with them.
A - That's right. I think he threatened to do a book about it.
Q - But I don't think he ever did.
A - No, he didn't.
Q - That's too bad because I would've liked to have read his account of that tour.
A - He could've done it.
Q - I don't see anyone doing a talk show today like you had back then. Maybe the closest is Charlie Rose on PBS but he doesn't necessarily get the "A" list of performers you had.
A - I certainly got everybody I ever wanted with one or two exceptions. It always amazed me that they would come on. Sometimes when somebody in one field would come on, it would bring others. When Katharine Hepburn did the show, then it was okay for anybody to do it, although I had a hell of a lot of great people before Katharine Hepburn. I think Janis (Joplin) having such a good time on the show, although I haven't checked the chronology on this, may have encouraged some other Rock people to do it.
Q - Because you had so many.
A - I had just about everybody it seemed. I never understood what their appeal for me was. (laughs).
Q - The appeal would have been good conversation. That's something that has been lost on TV, especially late-night TV. To me, everybody seems to be imitating Johnny Carson.
A - Yeah. (laughs) A woman wrote and said "thank you for Janis Joplin. I had seen her elsewhere", and she wrote, "I always wondered what she would be like. Thank God you made her sit down and talk (to you)." That kind of thing. I think they like the fact they weren't just an act on center stage, but somebody I presumably thought was worth sitting down and talking to.
Q - And you respected who ever it is you spoke with. Did you in fact like everybody you interviewed on your show? Did you like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon?
A - Janis, it was funny. I didn't give much of a damn about Rock 'n' Roll for years. A friend of mine who knew music took me down to the Fillmore one night. We saw a bunch of acts and afterwards I said "who's the girl with the green satin pants that fit like paper on the wall?" He said "her name is Janis Joplin." Next day I remembered it as Janice Gablin or something. I thought, I wonder if I'll ever see her again. (laughs) This was relatively early in her career. It was certainly not at the beginning. I just didn't know the scene. I never watched Hullabaloo. Then they started coming on the show. My daytime show in '68 had a Rock act on and they played on center stage. We were short that segment and my producer said "we've got to fill a minute. Go out there and talk to Grace Slick." I said "which one is Grace Slick?" That's how hip I was in those days. Later I had Grace Slick back and I knew who she was then.
Q - When your friend took you to see Janis Joplin, did you realize she had a unique voice? Did you realize just how good she was?
A - You can't be in the same auditorium and not get the impact hitting you right in the face. She was full out in her performance then. It was stunning.
Q - Then you had Jimi Hendrix on your show. You told him he was regarded as the greatest guitarist ever and he sort of laughed and looked down. He came across as a real humble type of guy. I'm just wondering if you realized that sitting next to you was the greatest guitarist that ever lived?
A - I had a feeling he was, because I came downstairs for a music rehearsal that afternoon. I rarely attended music rehearsals. I came down to watch Fred Astaire rehearse his medleys. I came down and this guy was playing the guitar. My band, which was the best band, every singer ever on the show said either on camera or off "this is the greatest band ever assembled." They were great names, legendary people like Milt Hindon on bass and Tommy Kaye and Dougie Bittarelli. Rosegarden had put together this stunning band. He can call out the name of the song. He saw Bob Hope in the wings about to step out and surprise me and I didn't know what was happening. I saw Rosegarden go "Memory in F." Everybody's instrument was in their mouth as he said "Memory in F" and they hit the first note of "Thanks For The Memory." Well, he could do that with anybody that came on. Ella (Fitzgerald), others all said "I wish I could take this band with me." They knew half the musicians in it of course. So, I came down and there's this Black guy playing this wild music. I could see my fabulous bandmembers just staring at him with their mouths open. They knew who he was of course. Whoever I had in the band on guitar then, I think maybe Tommy Kaye, said "he just did 20 things that can't be done." He's not on my Rock Icons box because before that Cavett show DVD box set came out, the Hendrix people and my company made a deal and brought out a cassett, which is now a DVD of course. He did two whole shows with me partly to make up for standing me up on Woodstock night. (laughs)
Q - And John and Yoko appeared on your show.
A - There is a separate DVD of my two 90 minute John and Yoko shows. The second time they came on they promised to sing and play, but that was the "Nigger" incident, "Woman Is The Nigger Of The World". ABC wanted to cut it and I said "I've just got you two nights of the highest ratings you're ever going to get, getting the Lennons. You're going to censor them for Christ sake?" I threatened to tell the press they were going to cut a John Lennon number from the show. They said "all right you can play it, but you'll have to have a little thing ahead of it saying in effect 'we hope you will be offended'." So I recorded that with a sneer on my face and they aired it ahead of the song. There were probably 400 protests, not one of them about the song, all of them about what they called the mealy mouthed apology you made Dick read into the camera before the song (laughs), to the American public.
Q - What did John say about that song?
A - He said it was a song that came from a remark that Yoko made one day, a sort of spontaneous insight saying of hers that woman is the nigger of the world. I haven't seen this in a long time. He may have said "I began hitting a few keys on the piano." Whatever happened, they made it into a song.
Q - Did you like John Lennon?
A - Completely. I've lost two long letters he wrote me. I assume I'll find them in my junk and mess somewhere, sometime. He certainly wrote well and he was such a smart guy. Not the happiest person in the world. He had a rough life early on. Then of course, I helped get myself into the Nixon tapes. The great Un-Indicted Co-conspirator. The White House should not be allowed to throw John Lennon out of the country.
Q - I recall signing a petition to let John Lennon remain in the United States. Thinking back on it, if he had been deported, he might be alive today.
A - God, I never thought of that.
Q - Did I contribute to the death of John Lennon?
A - That's one of those accidents of state that there is no blame attached to what you did.
Q - In 1981, you interviewed ABBA. I'm not saying ABBA isn't a good group, but did you regard that as a come down after having interviewed Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon?
A - I didn't know who ABBA was at the time.(laughs)
Q - You just didn't keep up with the Rock 'n' Roll scene.
A - Yeah (laughs) I knew who Miles Davis was and I knew who Charlie Mingus was. I probably thought is ABBA anything like that? But they were delightful. They were swell people. They probably were a little groovier than Richard Nixon.(laughs)
Q - ABBA was so popular they were offered something like $50 million or $100 million to reform, and they turned it down.
A - Yeah. As I said, they were delightful to know and work with. They didn't try to be anything they were not. So it isn't exactly relevant to say they weren't Hendrix or Joplin, but they brought happiness to millions.
Q - ABBA would probably not be as highly regarded as Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.
A - They would not find their way onto my Rock Icons DVD I guess, not that I selected the people for it. And I had a wonderful time with George Harrison and he got more interesting as the show went on. I got booed that night. I just realized that. There was a review in a Rock publication that says "Cavett says to Harrison something to the extent that you and the Beatles were known to be involved with drugs, you may have caused casualties among the young who adored you." That sort of thing. It says there was a booing in the audience, but Harrison came to Cavett's defense.
Q - What did he say?
A - I don't remember.
Q - Tom Snyder once asked John Lennon why he didn't make anti-drug commercials and he said kids listen to him. They would take drugs anyway.
A - Of course.
Q - The Beatles doing and anti-drug commercial would probably not have influenced kids.
A - I think drugs influence kids, not people in the entertainment business who use them.
Q - As a young guy, you were pretty determined to have a showbiz career. Am I right about that?
A - Apparently. I can't deny that. I knew that somehow it was my destiny.
Q - There's something else you have in common with people like John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. You all lost a mother when you were quite young. There are quite a few people in showbiz who have lost one or both parents at an early age.
A - I don't know the statistics on that. Certainly show business is something that those wanting to escape a reality might tend toward. Certainly it's a place to get the adoration; I'm making this up of course and I hadn't thought about it when your beloved parent died. It wouldn't surprise me at all if that's psychologically sound and authentically influential in a hell of a lot of showbiz people.
Q - They've written books about it.
A - I'm sure it's not a new theory. Standing in the middle of the stage, adored by thousands, can be a substitute for mommy and daddy.
Q - I don't know if you ever thought about that.
A - No. I wish you hadn't poisoned my mind with the thought. (laughs) I think you ought to analyze yourself. (laughs)
Q - I do that every day.
A - Oh, well that's good. Then you are saving money, but you are losing a job for some professional.
Q - If I did go to a professional, they'd only be interested in the people I've interviewed.
A - That could be too, yeah. Maybe you are too modest.
Q - I don't know about that.
A - I must say I never told my analyst about the joint that Janis gave me. Maybe I could have learned something more about myself. I don't know what was in it, but I remember thinking I ought to come down to the sidewalk for a while then appear where I am, as a cop might think it's suspicious that I'm 6 feet above the street.
Q - At one point you worked as a magician. You were an understudy of Gene Gloge. I've never heard of him. Was he famous?
A - No, he was not. He was famous in the town I lived and he was well known in the magic world. He had a lot of his stuff in the magic catalog. He was big time enough for me.
Q - You also met Johnny Carson around the time he was doing a magic act in Lincoln Nebraska. Was he this shy, introverted guy he's been portrayed as being?
A - I think he was probably always as socially inept and uncomfortable as he was all his life, except when he was on the air when he was glib and funny and amusing. But I didn't know him in Lincoln because he was almost a generation older than I was, but he was making a lot of noise at the University of Nebraska with his magic and comedy act and his ability to get dirty jokes in the things he emceed on campus. (laughs)
Q - A generation means what?
A - I think I was in what we called grade school when he was at the University. Probably 12 or 14 years older than I.
Q - While you were at Yale, you would regularly go to shows in New York and hang around backstage doors hoping to meet stars. Who did you meet and was it really the stars you wanted most or their business people?
A - I can promise you it was not the latter. It was them.
Q - So, who did you meet?
A - Everybody. Every week and a half a new Broadway show came to the Shubert Theater in New Haven on its way to Broadway. I went to Broadway shows. I went backstage. I sneaked into The Jackie Gleason Show. I sneaked into What's My Line and all the good game shows, never dreaming that one day I would be on virtually every one of them. Not the Gleason show, but Ed Sullivan. I still don't believe I was on The Ed Sullivan Show. I think it was Ed's last year.
Q - Did you like being on Ed Sullivan?
A - Oh, of course. I had laid on my back for what seemed like a decade watching Ed Sullivan in Nebraska and suddenly I had gone through the looking glass and I was on Ed Sullivan.(laughs). Woody Allen was sitting in the aisle. He was there for Sullivan to introduce him and plug his then first Broadway play.
Q - Did you make enough money with your magic act to afford tuition at Yale?
A - No. I dropped magic while I was at Yale and I've never quite understood why. I never pulled out my trunk full of stuff. Since I had a scholarship paying over half of the gigantic tuition then, I think $1000 a year, but some classmates say it was $2000 a year. Can you believe anyone then would guess what it is now?
Q - I don't believe they could have. You were writing jokes for Jack Paar. He liked them so much he hired you on as a talent co-ordinator. Talent co-ordinator? Shouldn't he have hired you on as a writer? What did the talent co-ordinator's job and tail?
A - That's a technicality, probably illegal. He wanted me but there was no opening. The writing staff was full. They knew that sooner or later there would be an opening on it. Somebody said "Jack didn't want to lose you." So he said, "were going to make you a Booker, pal, until we can slip you into the writing staff." So I actually interviewed people for the show. (laughs). And it occurred to me one day the irony of that, that my highest ambition was to be a guest on a talk show. I never dreamed of being the host. I suddenly realized, my God! I'm in a position to put anybody on the hottest talk show there is in the world, in the country, but myself! I'd been the person I'd be trying to meet to get on The Jack Paar Show!