New CD recalls drama and passion of the century's greatest speeches

October 29, 1991|By Leonard Pitts Jr. | Leonard Pitts Jr.,Knight-Ridder

Los Angeles-based Rhino Records is known for raiding the attic of popular music with a rather puckish sense of history and humor. For example, while its competitors are releasing ambitious CD boxed-set retrospectives of giants like Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday, Rhino just put out a similar package on ... the Monkees. Trust Rhino to do -- and see -- things differently.

And now, the label has outdone itself with a monumental four-CD boxed set, not of music, but of speeches. "Great Speeches of the 20th Century" is a package that will prove indispensable for historians, history teachers, history buffs and, for that matter, history-inclined rappers who need that special Richard Nixon or Malcolm X sample to make their masterworks sing.

But beyond the need this package fills is the service it performs. In "Great Speeches," history -- so often locked in cold printed pages, robbed of passion -- lives and breathes again in all its anguished poignancy, strutting self-delusion and breathtaking power.

Listen and feel it as the young Sen. Edward Kennedy eulogizes the second brother he has lost to an assassin's bullet. His voice trembles with tears, but he speaks doggedly through them to recall his brother's words: "Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not?"

Or journey back to a time of darkness and fear and listen to Britain's Prime Minister Churchill, drawing calm, faith and courage from some wellspring in his soul and dispensing them in the measured assurance of his voice. "Let us ... so bear ourselves that if the British empire and its commonwealths last for a thousand years, men will still say, THIS was their finest hour."

And hear the preacher named King, his voice thundering righteousness, as he calls a troubled nation back to its highest ideals, its better self. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

"So many times, we've read speeches," says Gordon Skene, the Los Angeles man who compiled this package at Rhino's request. "You read the printed word, and you put your own interpretations to it. But you listen, and it can take on an entirely different meaning."

Skene should know, if anyone does. Amazingly, he compiled "Great Speeches" from his own archives. The chatty, 40-year-old audio engineer has been recording and saving broadcast material with an obsessive zeal since Nov. 22, 1963. He was home sick from school that day, fiddling around with the tape recorder he had received just days before. He had just figured out how to record off the air when the terrible news came from Dallas.

"It became, 'Oh my God, something important is happening here.' I didn't know why, but I just ended up punching the record button and having history unfold onto the tape."

Skene had found his calling.

In compiling this boxed set, Skene says he came to realize "how few impassioned public speakers we have today. The only one I can think of today is Jesse Jackson. We have come a long way from the days of William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt, where you had this stiffly formal way of speaking. But lately, the idea seems to be, what can be compressed into 30 seconds ... the sound-bite mentality. I realize we are in the information age, but for people to explore things, to really talk about them, [often takes time]."

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