It's been a few months since I apologized for anything, and I've got a few things I need to get off my chest:
Several weeks ago, I looked up Duke Ellington's last stand in Knoxville, a two-nighter in early 1969 during which he played a Cherokee Country Club dance and two shows at the old Senators Club on Alcoa Highway.
At least, I thought it was his last stand here. Ellington's Knoxville shows before 1969 had been a decade or more apart. That 1969 show was only five years before his death, and I knew that those five years brought some attrition of his original band and some very serious health problems which curtailed some of his performances in the early '70s. I leapt to the conclusion that he didn't bother to come back to Knoxville for another show.
As my friend Bob Booker informed me, Ellington did play at least one more show in Knoxville, on Friday, Oct. 13, 1972, at the Civic Auditorium.
Booker, then a mayoral aide, actually got to meet Ellington, who happened to drop in at old City Hall before his show, but Booker says he missed the show itself. I haven't found a single account of that show. I looked up the old Knoxville Journals and News-Sentinels; neither newspaper reviewed it. They did make a big deal of another show that month, one featuring Bob Crosby, Margaret Whiting, and other old white big-band stars who appeared at the same auditorium 12 days later. The newspapers made a bigger deal of that nostalgia show, which was also more expensive than Ellington's. (Seats to see Duke Ellington in 1972 were only $2 to $5.)
When he played here that fall, Ellington was probably already suffering from the cancer that would take his life about 19 months later, but his biographers say his illness didn't affect his performing until his final European tour in late '73. Some of his leading sidemen, like Johnny Hodges, had died, but biographies suggest Ellington himself was still performing well. We probably missed a good show.
I got a few calls about my column about the 1963 WBIR tower, which was for a few months the tallest structure in the entire world. The tower is located on Zachary Ridge in East Knox County near Blaine, but reader Joe Longmire wanted to point out that it's also within the town boundaries of Corryton, Tennessee, and one of that community's claims to fame.
I also spoke with engineer Bob Horton, who was there when it was finished, just before the Kennedy assassination in November, 1963. He told me the tower didn't have to be the tallest in the world just to get the required altitude to do its job, but WBIR wanted to build the tallest structure anywhere. So they graded the ridge down eight feet so the tower could stretch taller and be, by a foot or so, the tallest thing in the world. It has long since lost that honor, but Horton thinks it's still the tallest structure in Tennessee.
After my column about Martin Condon, mayor of Knoxville from 1888 to 1890 and the first Catholic mayor in Tennessee history—and later president of The American Snuff Co.— wanted to make sure folks knew the distinction between snuff and chewing tobacco. I used the two terms recklessly, and should have known better. As a recovering user of both snuff and chewing tobacco myself, I know "chewing tobacco" and "snuff" are different concepts, and there's a world of social distinction between them. I was once a redneck, as most teenage boys are, and loped promiscuously across the entire smokeless tobacco hierarchy, from low chaws to high snuff.
They do have this in common: you place a pinch in your mouth between your gum and some fleshy part of your face, and then you do some spitting. Or, in the case of snuff, expectorating. The effects on the central nervous system are similar.
The main difference is where you place it. Snuff, which you use in petite quantities, goes discreetly between your lower lip and your gum; chewing tobacco, which comes out of the pouch in big sticky wads, goes in your cheek. The latter requires frequent and copious spitting, and should properly be considered an outdoor sport.
Snuff, on the other hand, requires only occasional expectoration, and can be enjoyed more discreetly in the club, the boardroom, or the theater without drawing stares. Often the only symptoms are a slightly swollen lower lip, a telltale mumble, and a devil-may-care attitude.
I've never witnessed the actual sniffing of snuff, in the 18th-century style popular among decadent royalty, but I've heard rumors that some prominent Knoxvillians do, on occasion.
Anyway, it's been 20 years since I've done much of either one, and in that time I must have lost my moorings about what's properly termed "chewing tobacco." In any case, Martin Condon's company manufactured snuff, not chewing tobacco.
By the way, a reader alerted me to the fact that Martin Condon's great-grandson, whose name is also Martin Condon, lives in town. I chatted with him briefly. He grew up in Memphis, where the elder Condon settled with his snuff company about a century ago. The American Snuff Co., later called the Conwood Corp., was bought out around 1988, and the family's no longer involved in it. His great-grandfather and namesake, died long before he was born; he's not certain exactly when, except that it was sometime after the mid-'30s. So, for now, that question mark stays. The younger Condon says he came to Knoxville in the '70s only to attend UT, and had never heard about his ancestor's mayoral career here. During his Memphis youth, he says, "Knoxville was never mentioned."