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Emmy-award Winning Sportscaster Bob Costas

Emmy-award winning sportscaster Bob Costas. Since 1980 hes been afilliated with the NBC network covering Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA. He was the prime-time host for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, the 1996 Summer Olympics, and the 2000 Sydney Games. Hes won numerous Emmys including one for his now defunct late-night TV interview program Later with Bob Costas. He is currently anchor of MSNBCs InterNight. Costas is also the author of Fair Ball: A Fans Case for Baseball.


Other segments from the episode on November 1, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 1, 2001: Interview with Bob Costas; Interview with Robert Kimball; Review of "The complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)."


DATE November 1, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Bob Costas talks about the World Series, sports in
general and the Olympics

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

This year's World Series has had some classic moments, pitting the team with
the biggest payroll in baseball, the New York Yankees, against the Arizona
Diamondbacks, a Sun Belt expansion team also heavily stocked with highly paid
veteran players.

Sports broadcaster Bob Costas likes the drama of this year's series, but is
worried about the future of baseball. Costas has won 11 Emmys and has been
named National Sportscaster of the Year seven times. He'll anchor NBC's
coverage of the Olympics next year and is host of "On The Record With Bob
Costas" on HBO. He's also the author of "Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for
Baseball," which argues that short-sighted owners and player reps are
undermining the fairness of the competition on the field. I spoke with Bob
Costas from his office in St. Louis.

Bob Costas, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BOB COSTAS (Sports Broadcaster): Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: You've written a book, "Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball." It
was released last year. But in that book, you've made the case that the
difference in player payrolls among competing teams has become so lopsided...

Mr. COSTAS: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: ...that we've got about two-thirds of baseball's franchises that
start the year with virtually no chance of going all the way. Why is baseball
different? How have other sports avoided that?

Mr. COSTAS: Well, for example, football has a built-in situation that allows
them to make sense of their finances. There are no local broadcast revenues
to speak of because every game is a network telecast, and there are only 16
games. And that network money for the NFL is larger than baseball, basketball
and hockey combined, so the single greatest source of revenue is easily
divided equally among all the teams, and it's difficult for local revenue to
make that much of a difference. So right there, they've equalized it. And
then on top of that, they've put in a salary cap, which some teams try to
circumvent, but at least it provides some sort of check; puts some sort of
check in place to keep one team from just running wild with their payroll.

Basketball doesn't have quite as tidy a situation as football, but at least
they do have some sort of salary cap situation in place.

Baseball has nothing like that, and they have enormous differences in local
revenues. The Yankees might generate $100 million more in local revenue than
a team like the Twins or the A's or the Expos or the Pirates or the Royals.
Now occasionally--very occasionally, a team like Oakland, which has been
extremely resourceful and very smart with their front office moves--a team
like Oakland might defy the odds and put together a playoff team a couple of
years in a row, but eventually, reality sets in and they have to deal with how
they'll hold that team in place with free agency and with arbitration coming
up. And it's just not possible, no matter how smart you are, when you have a
tiny payroll. It's just not possible to have sustained excellence the way the
Yankees and the Braves and some other clubs have been able to do.

DAVIES: So in baseball, you have teams with four or five times the player
payroll as other teams.

Mr. COSTAS: That's right. And potentially growing. For example, the
Yankees' local television situation is going to kick up even more next year to
well over $100 million for the Yankees alone, beginning next year. And
remember, there is no new Yankee stadium yet. There's no new Shea Stadium.
There's no new Dodgers Stadium, which would provide additional--at least in
theory, provide additional revenues for those large market teams that already
have huge advantages over their competitors.

DAVIES: You argue that a crucial turning point in the game came in 1994.
What did the owners do then that undermined the long-term health of the game?

Mr. COSTAS: Well, they were spoiling for a fight with the players. They
were right to this extent. They were right in saying that baseball's economy
was going off the rails. They saw the situation developing, which has only
grown worse in the last six or seven years. The problem was they had no
comprehensive vision for what should take the place of the existing system.
They didn't come forward and say, `Look, here's a comprehensive
revenue-sharing plan in which we are asking the wealthiest owners to sacrifice
much more than we would ask the players to sacrifice, but we do ask the
players to come aboard with us in partnership. If we have a revenue-sharing
plan that makes sense; if we modify free agency and make everyone a free agent
after four years instead of six; if we give you some things in return, would
you accept some sort of restraints on salary, perhaps restraints that might
affect superstars, but that, in truth, would probably not hurt the
rank-and-file player? If anything, might help the circumstances of the
rank-and-file player and will make sure, if we're going to have revenue
sharing and if we're going to have a cap on salaries or some sort of
significant luxury tax over a certain threshold that would act as a drag on
salaries, we'll make sure that the teams in the small and middle markets are
required to spend a minimum amount on payroll, so that you're not going to
have teams spending $25 million or $30 million, while others are spending
close to $100 million. We'll require not just some sort of ceiling, but some
sort of floor, which would give almost every team a chance to be competitive
with a little bit of luck and a little bit of resourcefulness.'

But they didn't do that. They simply came to the players and said, `Look, we
don't like the current situation. We're going to try to shove a salary cap
down your throat.' It was very obvious they were trying to provoke a strike,
and they were hopeful that if they held out long enough, that the players
might capitulate. And the players did go on strike and they blew off the
1994 World Series. And maybe the owners would have gotten a portion of what
they were looking for, even without some sort of real vision for the game's
future, but at the last minute, a federal judge ordered the players back on
the field and the strike ended early in the 1995 season. So all that was
accomplished was that they lost the World Series, they alienated millions of
fans. The owners achieved no real reform of the game's ailing economics, and
all the problems they were talking about in 1994 have only gotten worse at the
turn of the century.

DAVIES: So we're left with a lack of revenue sharing among the wealthy teams
and no restraint at all on the high salaries of expensive free agents, and
we're where we were.

Mr. COSTAS: At the moment, that's right.

DAVIES: Your book took on some of the most powerful people in the game, the
owners and the Players Association and, at least by extension, some of the
most highly paid free agent players. What sort of reaction have you gotten in
the year since you published the book?

Mr. COSTAS: Very, very positive from baseball fans, very positive from the
press. A lot of general managers and owners not only told me that they felt
that I made good points, but actually solicited input on--my input on ideas to
formulate strategies. The blue ribbon panel appointed by Commissioner Selig
came out three or four months after my book was published with its report and
reached many of the same conclusions that I had reached. They had somewhat
different data and they had access to some information which I didn't, but
their essential conclusion, at least regarding the game's economics, was
pretty much the same.

Players have not been hostile, either. You know, I think that players
sometimes listen to their agent,s and they may get focused on their own
situation and they may consider it a tremendous injustice that they make $8
million when someone they think they're as good as might be making $11
million. But when you sit down with them and ask them to look at the game
overall and the--what might be best for the game as an institution, they're
hard-pressed to argue that the present system really serves fans well or that
it serves most players well. Shouldn't competitive balance or something
approaching competitive balance be considered a working condition by a union?
Why should you consign more than half the players in baseball to teams that
have no practical chance to win, not just midway through the season, but on
opening day. So I think you'd be surprised--maybe they wouldn't stand up and
say it in union meetings, but you might be surprised how many players see
merit in some of these ideas. And it remains to be seen how reasonable
they're going to be. But the first move belongs to the owners. The players
should not be asked to make any changes unless the owners first present to
them a convincing and comprehensive plan that deserves a response.

DAVIES: When the Yankees and the Mets met in a Subway Series last year, TV
ratings were disappointing. Do you think that that is an indication that fans
are being turned off by this pattern of rich teams making the playoffs?

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah, in part, I think so. In part, I think a good segment of
the country said, `OK, two New York teams. Not only are we disinterested or
uninterested because of geography, but this is indicative of the stacked deck
that baseball fans have been complaining about for a long time.' Now that's
not entirely fair to a team like the Yankees, for example, because they're
very well managed both in the front office and in the dugout, and they do
deserve a lot of credit for the way they've played the hand that's been dealt
to them. But I think, generally, there's a kind of resentment. It may not be
true this year, post-September 11th, but over the years, there's resentment
towards the Yankees because they win all the time. And then when you throw
the Mets into the mix, I think a good portion of the country said, you know,
`What does this have to do with our team and our chances, so the heck with

DAVIES: You know, the Arizona Diamondbacks are an expansion team, but
they're not poor.

Mr. COSTAS: Right.

DAVIES: I mean, their payroll, I believe, was $82 million when they started
the year, as opposed to the Yankees' $109 million. So in this series, again,
we really have kind of two of the financial aristocracies of baseball. Does
that make it a less exciting fall classic for you?

Mr. COSTAS: No. You can look at the games on their own merits. Look at
each game and each pitcher-hitter matchup and the strategy in the dugout, and
you can enjoy it as a best-of-seven test between two excellent teams. But
when you look at baseball overall, when you go back to spring training next
year, you realize that with the occasional exception like the Oakland A's,
all you have to do is look at the playoff qualifiers since the mid-'90s and
the pattern is just overwhelming. There is a direct connection between
payroll size and success. Does a large payroll guarantee that you'll win or
contend for the pennant? No, it doesn't. You can screw up even with a large
payroll. But a small payroll virtually guarantees that you have no shot.

DAVIES: My guest is sportscaster Bob Costas. He's the author of "Fair Ball:
A Fan's Case For Baseball." We will talk more after a short break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: I'm Dave Davies, back with sportscaster Bob Costas.

You know, you've written that you like many sports, but you have a real love
for baseball. And you were quoted as saying once that the things that appeal
to us about football are inferior to the things that appeal to us about
baseball. What did you mean?

Mr. COSTAS: Oh, I don't know. I don't even remember that quote, and those
things tend to get jerked out of context, not that you're doing that, Dave.
And people want to portray me and others who have ever mentioned even once
or twice the undeniable fact that baseball has a richer history than other
sports and that people may relate to it in a different way than they do other
sports and it may have a little touch of romance that other sports do not.
Some people tend to caricature that and try to make us all sound like a bunch
of guys in bow ties and tweed jackets with patches on the elbows drawing on a
pipe in some ivory tower someplace and growing misty-eyed at the reading of
the infield fly rule. And that's just nonsense. That's not how I view the
game. It's not how I grew up with the game. You know, I do think that while
I've been a football fan all my life and I admire the skills of the players,
football is a violent game. It's a spectacle. Baseball is a pastime. I
think that baseball has a different texture to it, a different rhythm and
pace to it, than other sports do. I don't want to go overboard. I don't want
the violin strings to start in the background. After all, I grew up in the
'50s and early '60s, and baseball was still the national pastime then.
Someone who's 30 years old, instead of approaching 50 years old, may view it
differently. And that's fine, too.

DAVIES: But, no, there is something different about a game that is played
every day.

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah.

DAVIES: I mean, it's sort of like you see your family every day, whereas
football is this huge, emotional thing that happens once a week.

Mr. COSTAS: Right.

DAVIES: So it's a different sensibility, isn't it?

Mr. COSTAS: It's a spectacle. And emotions have to run high to even play
the game whereas if you played 162 baseball games at anything like the
fevered pitch that an NFL team plays each of six team games, your entire
roster would be in the looney bin by the All-Star break.

DAVIES: You did write in your book that baseball owners have made a mistake
in trying to imitate the sort of snap and flash of...

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...professional basketball, right?

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah, I think that's true. I think the essential appeal of
baseball is retro. And that doesn't mean that you don't modernize. It
doesn't mean you don't use the Internet for marketing purposes or that you
don't use modern advertising techniques or you don't try to consider what
might make the game more appealing to younger fans, but you can't be
something that you're not. Even if you tried to add all kinds of flash and
dash to baseball, it would never have the same kind of appeal as basketball.
It doesn't appeal to the same part of us that football does. It's dependent
on history. It's dependent on context in a way that other sports aren't.
While there are certainly moments of contact and intensity in baseball, its
general tone is a gentler tone and a more leisurely tone than other sports.
And I think baseball ought to emphasize that proudly as an alternative, rather
than almost apologizing for its basic appeal and saying to those who aren't
baseball fans to begin with, `Don't worry. Don't worry. We're trying to be
more like the sports that you do like.' That's never going to work. You have
to be true to yourself. Now you can update a little bit, but you have to be
true to your essence. And I think sometimes baseball hasn't done that.

DAVIES: How have you seen owners sort of overreach and make mistakes trying
to be like these?

Mr. COSTAS: Well, I think there's a lot of gimmickry in modern baseball.
I'm amazed that so many fans and members of the press think the wild card is a
good idea. It is just impossible; not unlikely. It is impossible to have a
meaningful race for first place among any of the three best teams in the
league under the wild card system. And I keep hearing how the wild card
increases excitement. Virtually every team that has a shot at the wild card
would also have a shot at first place, so the wild card as a fallback actually
takes away most of the drama that pennant races used to have.

And interleague play, I think, is another example. A smidgeon of interleague
play is fine, but they bent over backwards with this gimmick and decided, `Oh,
interleague play; now we've moved into the modern era, and anybody who
disapproves of this is just a high-bound traditionalist.' Well, except for
Yankees-Mets and White Sox-Cubs and a few other matchups, does anybody really
care if the Twins play the Cardinals? They don't care at all; and yet, this
is trumpeted as if this is a big deal. And the way they scheduled it seemed
to make little sense. They should have rotated it around, so that you got at
least an occasional glimpse once every three or four years at teams that
otherwise wouldn't come to your city. You know, they sold out to television
to the point where kids on school nights can't see even half of a World Series
game. It seems like if someone throws an extra nickel their way, they'll
prostitute the game and its long-range best interest just to pick up that
extra nickel. So, you know, I think they've done that in a number of ways.

DAVIES: When you and I were kids, we remember televisions being brought into
school to see the World Series.

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah. It had a special kind of communal feeling to it. I'm not
suggesting that they should play every game in the afternoon. More of America
can see it when the games are played at night, but why does a game have to
start at 8:30, Eastern time? Why not start the midweek games at 7:30, Eastern
time, and at least play some of the weekend games in the late afternoon to
give it some sense of the fall classic?

DAVIES: My guest is sports broadcaster Bob Costas.

One of the things we've been hearing since September 11th is that America is
now being carried into the modern age of violence and terrorism that much of
the world has already experienced. You're going to be involved in covering
the Olympics again soon. Will the coverage of the Olympics be different?
Will it be harder to get close-ups, to get access to the athletes? Will the
kinds of things viewers want to know be different? I mean, how in the
post-September 11th atmosphere is it going to be different?

Mr. COSTAS: Well, Dave, I have always felt that the Olympics should properly
be viewed as both a news event and a sports event. Now the philosophy of
networks covering the Olympics might not always reflect that. But I've always
felt that we were a little long on the drama and soap opera end and a little
short on the news end; that's just my personal take.

I think that post-September 11th, with an Olympics taking place in the United
States, the vast majority of viewers are going to have an interest not just in
the competition, but in all the circumstances surrounding the Olympics--the
practicality of holding them, the questions of security, the questions of the
Olympics in the future. What kind of job can Athens do staging an Olympics in
2004? It was apparently a challenge for them to begin with. And now with an
increased concern about terrorism, are they up to that challenge? Looking
down the road, what about an Olympics in China in 2008? What about all the
other issues; not necessarily related to terrorism, but are beyond-the-field
issues in the Olympics--performance-enhancing drugs, the practicality of the
bid process and the corruption that was exposed over the past several years?
All those things, I think, are very interesting aspects of the Olympics that
should be treated journalistically, that should be handled with in-depth
interviews and with commentary. And at the same time, you can revel in all
the excitement of the competition, all the drama, all the personal stories.
I'm not saying do away with the standard aspects of Olympic coverage; that's
fine--I like those, too--but I think there should be a larger dose of news
involved in Olympic coverage. And this time around, there's almost no excuse
not to go in that direction, because the events post-September 11th almost
push us in that direction.

DAVIES: Well, I almost hesitate to ask, but is NBC giving its crew training
in the possibility of suddenly converting from a sports event to a national

Mr. COSTAS: Well, as we speak, Dave, we're about a week away from an Olympic
seminar in Salt Lake City. We'll be there, the entire NBC crew, the
producers, the researchers, the announcers; everyone involved. And I'm sure
that that subject will come up, but I'm not exactly sure what NBC's plan is.
I'll know a little bit more as the Games approach.

DAVIES: Sportscaster Bob Costas. He's the host of "On The Record With Bob
Costas" on HBO. He'll be back in the second half of the show.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with sportscaster Bob Costas. He's the author of "Fair Ball:
A Fan's Case For Baseball." I talked to Costas about what's special about
calling a baseball game.

Baseball is a game which is played at a pace which leaves a lot of room for...

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...a broadcaster to do things. I mean, you find some like Vin Scully
in Los Angeles who seems to fill every space with something that's sort of
interesting, but he keeps talking. Other broadcasters use silence almost as
part of the broadcast.

Mr. COSTAS: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: How do you approach that?

Mr. COSTAS: Well, of course, on television you can use silences to a greater
extent than you can on radio, and Vin Scully made his mark, initially, on
radio. And he has such a distinctive voice and such command of his craft that
I think what works for him would not work for almost anybody else. He also
works alone, remember, which a lot of people take for granted. And yet think
about it. He's the only broadcaster who on a consistent basis works alone.
So he doesn't have to make spaces for...

DAVIES: It's practically unheard of, really, in the business now.

Mr. COSTAS: Right. And no one else could pull it off as well, but he has
the ability to do it. If you watch a Dodger telecast and you're sophisticated
enough to pick up on this, you also see that the telecast is directed
differently than almost any other baseball telecast, locally or nationally, in
that the telecast is done from the inside out. The director follows what
Scully says rather than putting up shots that Scully then has to react to and
put captions beneath.

Now the director will occasionally, if you find a cute little kid in the
stands or some irresistible shot someplace that would be interesting, the
director might do that on their own. But by and large, they're reacting off
what Vin finds interesting and what Vin wants to talk about, which allows him
to establish a rhythm rather than chasing pictures all over the place, which
is what many broadcasters find themselves doing. They're constantly reacting
to pictures that go up almost randomly. When a director and announcer are in
sync, however, then there should be less of that and it should have kind of an
organic flow to it.

DAVIES: One of the real challenges of a play-by-play broadcaster is when an
exciting play is happening, it happens at a fast pace and excitement tends to
grow and your voice can quickly start to raise. I think you've been very
effective in using few words and words at a conversational pace as sort of a
counterpunch to the action. Is that something that you developed over time?
Did you have to practice it?

Mr. COSTAS: You know, I think you develop techniques sometimes without
realizing it. You just kind of--as you do it, you figure out what works and
what doesn't work and it starts to come more naturally to you. One of the
things that I discovered is that especially if the play is exciting to the
home crowd, the crowd's audio is going to get up there more quickly than the
audio man in the truck can adjust the announcer's audio. So you need to get
out. You need to make your statement before the crowd really reacts,
otherwise you're fighting the crowd and what you say kind of gets lost and,
subliminally, it seems less effective to the audience. So if you can get on
the call of a home run and basically get it out there before the crowd has
totally reacted, before delirium has set in and then just lay out and let the
crowd take it while the guy runs around the bases, that's probably the best
way to do it.

DAVIES: As a journalist who's done reporting beyond the world of sports, I'm
wondering if you find when you're in locker rooms or in a sports environment
that you are around people who seem to know or care about little else besides
sports, and if that ever becomes tiresome? Do you ever get tired of being
around sports folks?

Mr. COSTAS: No, I don't get tired of it. I enjoy it. A great sports event
is a drama without a script and you try to take it on its own terms. It's a
great common denominator. It cuts across all lines. That may sound trite,
but people of varying backgrounds have an interest in sports. I don't think
it's necessary to be sports obsessed where you listen to the talk shows
several hours a day and get all worked up over every single ball game or who
the Seahawks are going to take in the third round of the draft. There is a
little bit of sports nerd-dom out there and, you know, if you were ever bitten
by that you ought to outgrow it as the years go by. But I hope I never lose
my excitement over big events and great performances and walking into an arena
or stadium where a championship is on the line or something interesting might
happen. No, I never feel--I never look down on it. I don't know that I'd be
happy if that was all my life was about, but the portion of my life that is
about sports is something that I enjoy a lot.

DAVIES: What do you read when you're not reading sports?

Mr. COSTAS: Well, these days, not as much in terms of books as periodicals
and newspapers. Like everybody else, I'm trying to stay up on the events,
post-September 11th. I read five or six newspapers a day and any number of
magazines. I like history and biographies and that sort of thing when I'm
reading non-sports books.

DAVIES: Does it inform your coverage, do you think?

Mr. COSTAS: Not directly, but probably in some way. I think the greater
your frame of reference, the better broadcaster you'll be, no matter what your
area of concentration is. It just--it tends to help if you've got some
background beyond just the preparation for that particular event. But I'm not
the kind of broadcaster who makes literary references, or that sort of thing.
It amuses me sometimes when people confuse me with those who do. I don't know
quite where they make that association with me, but I'm not the sort of guy
who would draw a connection between Henry James and former Cardinal and Yankee
Charlie James. You know, it just doesn't work that way. It just--it's goofy
and I don't know why some--why people would ever think that I would do
something like that. And I've heard that--I've heard that suggested and
apparently they're confusing me with some other Bob Costas.

DAVIES: Yeah. I thought you were known for a line about the myth of

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah, right, right.

DAVIES: ...and some of that. Yeah.

Mr. COSTAS: Yeah. I think I did once make a reference to Sisyphus with
regard to the Buffalo Bills pushing the rock to the top of the mountain every
year by winning the AFC and then having it roll back on top of them in the
Super Bowl. But that was one time only, and I stopped after that.

DAVIES: Did your relationship with your father breed this interest in sports
and baseball in you?

Mr. COSTAS: Oh, I think like a lot of kids, our parents first introduced us
to sports. In my case, it was my father. He was an avid sports fan;
baseball, especially. I grew up in New York in the '50s. It was a hotbed of
baseball. Many of the greatest announcers were plying their trade in the New
York area, so I got to hear them and they drew me into the game.

And going to a ball game with your dad was a big thing, especially then when
fewer games were on television and even then it was a black-and-white
television. So the idea of going to the ballpark and seeing all the sights
and sounds so vividly and doing it with your dad--I don't think this is at all
unique to me. I think millions of kids of my generation had the same
experience. And it was a way to have something in common with your father.
It was an entry point. It was a conversation in which a 10-year-old kid's
opinion might matter as much as his 40-year-old dad. So I could talk to my
dad about baseball and other sports, and it was a part of our relationship.

DAVIES: Well, Bob Costas, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. COSTAS: Dave, thank you.

DAVIES: NBC sportscaster Bob Costas. He's host of "On The Record With Bob
Costas" on HBO.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Robert Klein comic routine about baseball

Here's comic Robert Klein.

(Soundbite of comic routine)

Mr. ROBERT KLEIN: I used to go to Yankee Stadium and used to sit upstairs
for $1.25, sneak down for the last out by the box seats. Right? Right? Have
you ever done that, anyone here? You're under arrest, sir.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Mr. KLEIN: What a minor crime that is, really. You know, sneaking down for
the last out on a Tuesday afternoon. The Yankees were winning 15-to-2. It
was in September. It was 40 degrees. There was very little chance that the
president of IBM is going to use his box seat that day for the last out, you
know. Who knows? He'll come along, `Beaver, where's my seat? Where's that
little punk? Get him out of here.'

(Soundbite of audience chuckling)

Mr. KLEIN: So I sneaked down for the last out, and the stadium cop would
chase us. Really. I guess he was just doing his job. Overreacted a little
bit; drew his gun.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Mr. KLEIN: `All right, get out of there, kid! Come on!' Biting his lip,
wanting us to act up, you know.

All athletes sound alike when they're interviewed. They all sound Southern.
(Speaking with Southern accent) `Well, my arm's feeling real good, Ralph. I
feel I can help this ball club. It's a good ball club, and we got good
defense on this ball club. I feel we can help this ball club. It's a good
ball club,' you know.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Mr. KLEIN: It doesn't matter where he's from. He could be a Rhodes scholar.
(Speaking with British accent) `Yes, we'll extrapolate on that afterwards.
I've got an interview now, but I'll be right with you, Matthew.' (Speaking
with Southern accent) `My arm's feeling real good, Ralph. I feel I can help
this ball club. It's a good ball club. We've got good pitching on the ball

(Soundbite of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game")

DAVIES: That's Don Sternberg(ph) on mandolin.

Coming up, Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Robert Kimball talks about the lyrics of Irving Berlin

Before the seventh inning of every World Series, and at many other public
events since September 11th, crowds have sung Irving Berlin's "God Bless
America." Berlin was born in Russia. He was five years old when his family
emigrated to the United States in 1893. Berlin wrote many classic American
songs, including "Blue Skies," "Cheek to Cheek," "There's No Business Like
Show Business," and "White Christmas."

Terry Gross spoke recently with music historian Robert Kimball, who along with
Berlin's daughter, Linda Emmet, has co-edited a new collection of Berlin's
lyrics, "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin." Before we hear their
conversation, here's Berlin singing "God Bless America," recorded in 1939, the
year after he wrote the song.

(Soundbite of "God Bless America" from vintage recording; music)

Mr. IRVING BERLIN: (Singing) God bless America, land that I love. Stand
beside her and guide her through the night with a light from above. From the
mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless America,
my home, sweet home.

(Soundbite of orchestra swelling; applause)

TERRY GROSS (Host): Robert Kimball, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Irving Berlin always thought that "God Bless America" was the most important
song he wrote. Do you know why he thought that?

Mr. ROBERT KIMBALL (Music Historian): There's no question that it embodied
for him all his feelings about his adopted country, about what the US had
given him. He had had a fabulous life in America, and this was his way, a
small way for him--because he said it was really just a token of his
appreciation for America.

GROSS: Now he wrote "God Bless America" in 1918 for a review that he wrote
while serving in the Army called "Yip, Yip, Yaphank." He was stationed in
Yaphank, Long Island. But he didn't use it in the review. Do you know why?

Mr. KIMBALL: He thought it was just the wrong tone for the finale of the
show. He didn't feel comfortable with it at that time, so he removed it
during rehearsal and he closed the show with, I think, with a song called
"We're On Our Way to France," which is quite lively and fun in its own right.

GROSS: Berlin really had a sense that music helped define what it was to be
an American, and that music was really one of our strengths. Like for his
1918 musical "Yip, Yip, Yaphank" during World War I, he wrote this song called
"Send a Lot of Jazz Bands Over There." It was his message to President Wilson
and it was, `Send a lot of jazz bands over there to make the boys feel glad.
Send the troop of Alexander's with ragtime band to Flanders and make 'em play
a lot of snappy airs.' And he manages to plug his own song in there, too,
"Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Have you been thinking a lot about the songs that Berlin wrote for World War I
and World War II?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, of course, we look back over that 80 years in which he
was writing songs, an extraordinarily long period, 40 of which he was
considered the top songwriter in the profession. We see that he reflected
whatever was going on in the world. He had an extraordinary ear. He listened
and retained very, very well. And so during the wartime, he felt a sense of
mission and purpose. And he felt it again, of course, in World War II when he
wrote "This Is the Army." And he wanted to be close to the soldiers and, for
him, the experience in World War II, travelling with the troops, being part of
it was for--I think he thought it was the most important experience of his

GROSS: Well, having put together the book of Irving Berlin lyrics, is there a
lyric or two that particularly stands out to you, either in the rhyme scheme
or in the sentiment it expresses or in the way it captures the moment that it
was written in?

Mr. KIMBALL: Terry, that's a very hard question, but I can think of a few,
obviously. One of which I've thought about a lot recently, certainly in
recent weeks, is a song that was introduced by Fred Astaire. And the
sentiments in the lyric are really, really, really timely; lines like, `There
may be trouble ahead, and there may be teardrops to shed.' Of course, I'm
speaking of the song called "Let's Face the Music and Dance," which was
introduced in the 1936 film "Follow the Fleet," is certainly one of Mr.
Berlin's greatest songs.

GROSS: Well, why don't we end with that. It's a wonderful song. So this is
Fred Astaire singing Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." And my
guest, Robert Kimball, is the co-editor of the new book "The Complete Lyrics
of Irving Berlin".

(Soundbite of "Let's Face the Music and Dance")

Mr. FRED ASTAIRE: (Singing) There may be trouble ahead. But while there's
moonlight and music and love and romance, let's face the music and dance.
Before the fiddlers have fled, before they ask us to pay the bills and while
we still have the chance, let's face the music and dance.

Soon we'll be without the moon, humming a different tune and then there may be
teardrops to shed. So while there's moonlight and music and love and romance,
let's face the music and dance, dance. Let's face the music and dance.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Robert Kimball co-edited a new collection of Irving Berlin's lyrics.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead's review of a new boxed set of
recordings from Billie Holiday. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New 10-CD collection "The Complete Billie Holiday on

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new 10-CD set of recordings Billie
Holiday made for Columbia between 1933 and 1944. Kevin says it's hard to
overestimate the influence Holiday has had over singers as diverse as Frank
Sinatra, Carmen McRae, Bob Dylan and others. Holiday's own inspiration was
the same as most jazz musicians: Louis Armstrong. You can hear his influence
in the way she phrases on a warm-up take to 1938's "Now They Call It Swing," a
song about the rapid changes jazz was going through.

(Soundbite of "Now They Call It Swing")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Once they called it ragtime, and it had its
fling. It's the same old syncopation, not they call it swing. Then they
played it jazz time to a buck and wing. Once again it sweeps the nation, now
they call it swing.

When singers used to sing they would go `ha-cha.' But with this modern thing,
now they go `rit-tit-tit, rad-ta-tah.' Rhythm has its demons...


It's amazing how quickly jazz developed early on. Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot
Peppers, the swing era, bebop, rhythm and blues, cool jazz and the first
stirrings of the avant-garde all happened in the space of 30 years.

Billie Holiday always sounded so modern. It's easy to forget how young jazz
was when she debuted in 1933. Rank-and-file jazz musicians had learned to
swing only recently. And for years yet, a hip tune might end with a whiff of

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Loveless, never, never change. Keep that breathless
charm, won't you please arrange it 'cause I love you just the way you look

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Billie Holiday's light and reedy voice was so far from Armstrong's
gravel pipes, the phrasing he pioneered took on a totally different effect.
On her breezy, early recordings--that one was from 1936--her timing floated
like a balloon; helium to Armstrong's hailstorm. That buoyancy is one thing
she had in common with her favorite accompanist, Lester Young. But she also
sounded good paired with other tenor saxophonists, including Ben Webster and
on this next one, Joe Thomas. He gets her spring in his step.

(Soundbite of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) So if you like pajamas (pronounced pah-jah-mahs) and
I like pajamas (pronounced pah-jam-mahs), I'll wear pajamas (pronounced
pah-jah-mahs), give up pajamas (pronounced pah-jam-mahs). Love me, know me,
need each other solely, better call the calling off or let's call the whole
thing off.

(Soundbite of saxophone solo)

WHITEHEAD: There's a sweetness about some of Billie Holiday's early sides you
can overlook given her powerful ballads. But on slow numbers, in her
speechlike middle register, her voice had a vulnerability that pulled her out
of Armstrong's orbit and went straight for your heart. Here's Holiday in 1939
on what she called her favorite song by Irene Kitchings and Arthur Herzog.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Some other spring, when twilight falls, will the
nights bring another to me? Not your kind, but let me find it's not true that
love is blind. Sunshine's around me, but deep in my heart, it's cold as ice.
Love, once you've found me, but can that story unfold twice? Some other...

WHITEHEAD: A lot of singers learned a lot from Billie Holiday, about her
conversational deliveries, emotional shading and quietly rewriting melodies to
improve them or suit your range. Many songs she sang were no great shakes in
themselves, but the body of work she recorded for Columbia between 1933 and
'41 include some of the best jazz singing anyone ever did. It's high time
they were collected in one place, with a few radio performances thrown in as
extras, although 10 CDs will be more than enough for some.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Lips are saying love. All worries have passed. Then
I'll get that feeling you're too lovely to last. Will I ever know...

WHITEHEAD: The music's great, but the lavish packaging--which resembles a
foldout album of old 78s--is like an architect's vanity project; classy on the
outside, but ill-suited to daily use. The inside is an intricate construction
of heavy paper that looks a bit fragile for the job of holding the CDs and a
big, floppy book. You want to play this stuff, not encase it in glass.

The book's text is kind of a mess. One essay gets the date of Billie's death
wrong by 10 years. There are three disks of alternate takes, dozens newly
issued in the States, but the track notes recycled from earlier issues. Take
no notice of those. Since some jazz fans are suspicious of alternates to
begin with, you should at least tell them where some of the highlights are.
Them that get's deserve to know what they got.

DAVIES: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. He reviewed "The Complete Billie
Holiday on Columbia."

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of "God Bless the Child")

Ms. HOLIDAY: (Singing) Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall
lose. So the Bible says, and it still is news. My mom may have, Papa may
have, but God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.

Yes, the strong gets more, while the weak ones fade. Empty pockets don't ever
make the grade. My mom may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child
that's got his own, that's got his own.

Money, you got lots of friends crowding 'round the door. When you're gone and
spending ends, they don't come no more. Rich relations give crusts of bread
and such. You can help yourself, but don't take too much. My mom may have,
Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own.


Announcer: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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