Ken Hoffman on his time with comic rebel Tommy Smothers, plus his near disaster with the NBA's tallest player
As the world now knows,Tommy Smothers, the punchline member of the beloved Smothers Brothers comedy duo, died last week at 86.
Smothers was best remembered for the controversial Smothers Brothers television show in the 1960s in which Smothers and his brother Dick became heroes of the hippie, counterculture and anti-Vietnam War movements with their irreverent skits and musical guests. Their anti-establishment politics angered both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and the show eventually was canceled by CBS despite respectable ratings.
The Smothers Brothers continued to perform across America as a mainstream musical-comedy duo, with Tom even producing a Yo-Yo instructional video, until the act retired in 2010. The Smothers Brothers contemplated a return tour for 2023 but that was canceled when Tommy Smothers was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Ken puts Tommy on the hot seat
I got to meet Tommy Smothers during one of the Smothers Brothers appearances in Houston. We talked briefly about the Smothers Brothers television controversy, then I asked him the question I had been saving up for years:
“How did you get to perform on one of the most influential and important records in rock ‘n’ roll history?”
On May 26, 1969, John Lennon invited the press and several friends into room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Canada, where Lennon and wife Yoko Ono were holding one of the famous bed-ins. That day Lennon, still a member of The Beatles, recorded his first solo single – “Give Peace a Chance.”
While the crowded room helped Lennon on the chorus – “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” only one other musician sat on the bed with Lennon and Yoko and played guitar – Tommy Smothers.
The Smothers Brothers/Beatles connection
“We were friends with the Beatles. We shared their sentiments of wanting the U.S. to stop fighting in Vietnam. We introduced their video for Revolution on our show. George Harrison appeared with us during our back-and-forth with CBS over our material and encouraged us to continue doing what we were doing,” Tommy Smothers told me.
“So when John Lennon invited me to come up to Montreal to help him record a song, of course I went.”
Smothers was unfamiliar with Lennon’s new song and they had only a brief rehearsal.
“I asked John what he wanted me to play. He told me to watch what he did, watch his hands, and do the same exact thing. He wanted the song done exactly the way he wrote it. I played what he asked,” Smothers said.
In the live video of the performance, viewers catch only a couple of glimpses of Smothers sitting on the bed strumming along with Lennon. Mostly his back is to the camera. Lennon did sing Smothers’ name in the third verse:
“Everybody’s talking about John and Yoko, Timmy Leary, Rosemary (Mrs. Leary), Tommy Smothers, Bobby Dylan, Tommy Cooper, Derek Taylor, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsburg, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare Krishna...”
Pretty cool, getting name checked in one of the most important and influential songs in modern music.
“Give Peace a Chance” became a catchphrase and anthem of a country growing weary of a seemingly never-ending war in Southeast Asia. On November 15, 1969, 500,000 demonstrators chanted the song’s chorus on Vietnam Moritorium Day in Washington. Folk singer Pete Seeger added “Are you listening, Nixon?”
The record was released in July, 1969 with the writing credit going to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Later the credit went exclusively to Lennon.
Over the years, “Give Peace a Chance” was covered by dozens of artists including McCartney, Madonna, Louis Armstrong, Aerosmith, Pearl Jam and Stevie Wonder. “Sing Along with…” Mitch Miller, as mainstream an artist as ever was, recorded the song on an album called Peace Sing-Along. Lennon performed the song on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in 1972.
The Northern Ireland peace movement adopted “Give Peace a Chance” as its message. On March 2022, 150 public radio stations across Europe played Give Peace a Chance at the same time to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the night Lennon was murdered, thousands of his fans chanted Give Peace a Chance outside his Dakota Building home.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame lists “Give Peace a Chance” one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
“The song lasted way beyond the end of the Vietnam War. Playing a part on that recording was something I’ve always been proud of. Giving peace a chance is always a good sentiment and something worth trying. It’s relevant today and always will be the goal,” Smothers said to me.
A giant disaster...averted
Last week, here’s a shocker, I went to the WWE pro wrestling show at Toyota Center. About eight thousand fans showed up. The floor and lower bowl seats were almost filled.
Our regular-sized Ken Hoffman almost had his wrestling view obstructed by XL-sized Rockets center Boban Marjanovic.Image via Houston Rockets
Right before the opening bell, who walked in, holding a ticket, looking for his seat? Houston Rockets center Boban Marjanovic, all 7 feet and 4 inches of him, the tallest active player in the NBA.
Please don’t sit in front of me. Please, please, please.
I’ve had my share of bad seats. I’ve sat next to people who insist on singing along — and louder — than the artist. I once went to an Astros game and got a ticket in the second row. Great seat. Except the guy in the front row, for absolutely no acceptable reason, decided to stand the entire game. I’ve sat next to people who used the act onstage as inspiration to make out – lots of tongue and slurping noise. Vapers, drunks, fans holding their phones up to record the show, misbehaving children, too.
Except this time.
Boban found his seat, the back row of the floor, where he sat the whole show and blocked nobody’s view. Whew.