‘I Want You Back’


ON THIS DATE in 1970, the Jackson 5 hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “I Want You Back,” the first of four straight chart-topping singles for the all-brother boy band from Gary, Indiana.

When first informed of the funk-pop group featuring eleven-year-old lead singer Michael Jackson, Motown boss Berry Gordy had grumbled, “I hate kid groups.” He changed his mind after hearing brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael. Good move: The Jackson 5 injected new life into Gordy’s slumping record company.

The first of the Jackson 5 hits, “I Want You Back,” proved the perfect tune to kick-start their career, and its success was no accident. Gordy, one of the song’s co-writers, reportedly spent more time on that single than any other tune he’d been involved with.

The result was a song that Don Waller, author of 1985’s The Motown Story, called “probably the best pop record ever made.” “The record just explodes off your turntable,” Waller said. “I Want You Back” reached number one on January 31, 1970, ending the four-week reign of B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”

Next for the Jackson 5: “ABC,” which spent two weeks at number one; “The Love You Save,” another two-week chart-topper; and “I’ll Be There,” number one for five weeks.

Two other Jackson 5 singles — 1971’s “Mama’s Pearl” and “Never Can Say Goodbye” — reached number two, and the band recorded four top-10 albums from 1969’s Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5 to 1972’s Lookin’ Through The Windows. They also appeared on a popular Saturday Morning cartoon show that aired for two years beginning in 1971.

When Michael’s solo career took precedence over his work with his brothers, he soared and the J-5 swooned. In the 1980s, the King of Pop recorded two masterpiece albums,Off The Wall and Thriller. The Jackson 5 made one last shout with 1984’s “State of Shock,” a number-three single.

Anna May Wong


ON THIS DATE in 1922, seventeen-year-old Anna May Wong starred in The Toll of the Sea, becoming the first Asian American woman to receive top billing in a Hollywood film.

A third-generation Chinese American from Los Angeles, Wong cut a striking figure with   her five-foot-seven-inch stature, large, dark eyes, and distinctive bangs. She made her first feature film at fourteen and received progressively larger roles until the Toll of the Sea, a silent film that told a Madame Butterfly-type tale of a Chinese woman who falls in love with an American man, gives birth to a child after he leaves her, and drowns herself in the sea.

Two years later Wong appeared with Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad. She made a series of films in Europe and, according some film buffs, gave her finest performance in 1929’s Picadilly. In 1932 Wong shared screen time with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, but she grew increasingly frustrated with Hollywood casting tendencies, particularly when MGM passed her over for an Austrian actress, Luise Rainier, for the peasant wife role in The Good Earth, a 1937 film about a Chinese farmer and his wife.

In 2008, Turner Classic Movies made a documentary of Wong’s singular film career titled, Anna May Wong – Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times, and Legend.

Gidget and the flag maker


ABOVE: Kathy Kohner rides the waves in 1956.

ON THIS DATE in 1941, future-flagmaker Robert Heft was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and the real-life Gidget, Kathy Kohner, was born in Los Angeles. Both made a mark as seventeen-year-olds in 1958.

• • •

Heft’s story took place in Lancaster, Ohio, where the high school junior created a 50-star flag as part of a class project. His history teacher, Stanley Pratt, was less than impressed. Congress had approved statehood for Alaska on July 7, making it the 49thstate. “You don’t even know how many states there are,” Pratt told Heft.

President Eisenhower with the original 50-star flag.

The student countered that Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, would surely become the fiftieth state. Fine, said his teacher. If Heft could get Congress to accept his 50-star flag design, his grade would be changed from a B-minus to an A.

Heft shipped his self-stitched 50-star flag to Ohio state senator Michael DiSalle, and then to his congressman. Sure enough, on March 12, 1959, Congress voted to make Hawaii the 50th state. More than 1,500 flag designs were submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but Heft’s flag, with its alternating rows of five and six stars, was the one chosen to represent the 50-state nation.

In July of 1960, Heft traveled to Washington, D.C., and stood by the president as his 50-star flag was raised.

• • •

The real Gidget, Kathy Kohner.

At seventeen, 4-foot-9-inch Kathy Kohner spent every moment she could on the shores near her home in Brentwood, California, surfing with her friends Moondoggie, Bubblehead, and Tubesteak. They called her Gidget, a contraction of “girl” and “midget.”

Kathy’s father, Frederick Kohner, used these real characters to craft a novel titled Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas. Published in 1957, it spawned seven Gidget novel sequels. The character gained wider fame with a 1959 movie starring Sandra Dee, a 1961 sequel, and a 1965-66 TV series starring Sally Field.

The unknown hero

cowpensAbove: William Ball (left) fires at a British officer during the 1781 Battle of Cowpens.

ON THIS DATE in 1781, a fourteen-year-old African American whose name may have been William Ball saved his colonel’s life during the Revolutionary War Battle of Cowpens.

George Washington biographer John Marshall in 1843 described the young man as “a waiter, too small to wield a sword” when his gunshot felled a British officer intent on slaying William Washington, second cousin of the future first president, during a decisive Continental Army victory in South Carolina.

The shooter is depicted on the left of an 1845 William Ranney painting (above) taking aim at the saber-wielding British officer. His name is often given as William Ball, although some sources say he may have been named Collin, or Collins. He has been alternately described as a waiter, a servant, and a bugler.

Led by Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, American forces won a decisive victory at Cowpens. Many believe the battle gave the patriots confidence that they could actually win their war for independence.

Congress awarded William Washington a silver medal for his valor, but the fate of his fourteen-year-old servant/bugler has been lost to history. The young man failed to file a pension, and William Washington left no papers that told of the servant or bugler’s role in the American Revolution.

The Sydney Seagull


isabella_insty101 YEARS AGO TODAY, fifteen-year-old Isabel Letham became Australia’s first surfer. Maybe.

Letham joined Hawaian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku (the Big Kahuna) in a tandem surfing exhibition at Freshwater Beach, near Manly, Australia. “And as a result,” Melbourne University historian Nikki Henningham said in 2007, “she goes down in history as the first Australian to ride in Australian surf in the Hawaiian style — the first Australian surfer.”

Letham2“(Kahanamoku) paddled on to this green wave and, when I looked down it, I was scared out of my wits,” Letham recalled. “But he took me by the scruff of the neck and off we went, down the wave.”

Letham spent early months of 1915 touring around Australia with the Big Kahuna and his entourage. The press nicknamed her the Sydney Sea Gull and Diana of the Waves.

Some say Australians had been surfing for at least three years, without Letham’s publicity, before The Big Kahuna arrived in 1915.

U. of Georgia integrated


Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, 1961.

ON THIS DATE in 1961, Hamilton Holmes, nineteen, and Charlayne Hunter, eighteen, registered for classes at the University of Georgia en route to becoming the first African Americans to attend the college.

Attorney Vernon Jordan told National Public Radio in 2011 that University of Georgia officials “did everything conceivable and possible — legal and illegal” to keep the two out of the school. Holmes and Hunter “were against the big wall,” Jordan said. “And they won.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, 2003

It was a victory with no parade. Hunter (Hunter-Gault after marriage) recalled being greeted on campus “by a screaming, howling mob of students,” with the rabble “yelling and screaming all kinds of epithets, and telling us to go home — in some cases saying, ‘Kill the you-know-what.’” Outside her dorm, racists hurled bottles, bricks, and more profanities. Yet on her first morning of classes, she was greeted by a contingent of 15 white females who said they would “make her welcome” and escorted her to class.

Holmes would graduate Phi Beta Kappa, receive his medical degree from Emory University, and become an orthopedic surgeon. Hunter-Gault reported for The New York Times and became the first black woman writer at The New Yorker.

He saved the president’s life

Above: Maldives’ President Maumoon Gayoom greets Mohammed Jaisham Ibrahim at a hospital in Male, Maldives.

ON THIS DATE in 2008, fifteen-year-old Mohamed Jaisham Ibrahim saved his president’s life.

The Maldivian president, Maumoon Gayoom, was greeting a crowd in Hoarafushi, one of his nation’s 1,190 tiny coral islands, when an apparent well-wisher extended a hand sheathed in a flag. Ibrahim, standing nearby, spotted part of a seven-inch knife twisted up in the flag and lunged at the assailant’s blade, cutting his own hands but preventing the man from stabbing the president.

The twenty-year-old attacker tried a second stab but managed only to rip the president’s shirt before security guards overpowered him.

Blood spilled on the president but it proved to be from Ibrahim’s hand wound. After the cut was stitched, the boy flew to a hospital for further treatment, eventually making a full recovery.

Gayoom, who would lose a bid for re-election 10 months later, thanked Ibrahim personally and a government spokesman informed the press, “One brave boy saved the president’s life.”