Wednesday December 30, 2015
Meadowlark Lemon (1932-2015)
Meadowlark, with his game face on.
I first knew him as part of a Saturday morning cartoon show, “Harlem Globe Trotters,” which debuted in September 1970, and which, I suppose, is how I came to know basketball. What I didn’t know: He wasn’t doing his own voice (Scatman Crothers was), and it was the first regular network cartoon to feature a mostly African-American cast—beating “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” by two years. But I was a kid, and truly color blind then. The blinds came off a few years later.
I also remember him from the live-action variety show “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine” (“And now/Rodney Allen Rippy, take a bow”), which debuted in 1974, as well as all of those commercials he did. He shilled for Vitalis, stacked Whoppers for Burger King, squeezed the Charmin. The Globetrotters even solved a mystery with Scooby Doo and the gang.
I also remember seeing them once in person in the early 1970s at, I believe, the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. I think I expected the up-close “wow” factor of the cartoons and was slightly disappointed to be so far away from them and their antics.
Of course you could never forget his name: Meadowlark Lemon. So mellifluous. So beautiful.
Am I the only one who remembers a theme song for him? Because I can’t find it anywhere online, and almost every pop cultural scrap is online now. It went something like this:
Dah dah dah dah dah
He’s so dah, and so dah
Dah dah dah dah dah
And everybody’s sayin’
Oh Meadowlark Oh Lemon
Everybody loves you, Meadowlark
Probably to the tune of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” per the Globetrotters own theme song. Anyone?
The Washington Post has a nice obit on the man born Meadow George Lemon in 1932 in Wilmington, N.C., which doesn’t mention the cartoon show; so does The New York Times, which does. Both obits tell me more of what I didn’t know: that before they were a pop cultural phenomenon, the Harlem Globetrotters were a cultural one. I.e., before they regularly played their foils, the Washington Generals, in games that were mostly antics, they played college All-Stars and NBA championship teams in games that were mostly serious. It was a segregated era, and the Globetrotters regularly beat the best white teams, and helped integrate basketball as a result. The first black player signed to an NBA contract was Globetrotters center Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in 1950. Four years later, Meadowlark joined the Trotters and quickly became its leader and star.
They really were basketball’s good-will ambassadors. One wonders if the sport would’ve become the global phenomenon it’s become, as quickly as it’s become, without them.
This Times article is from 1950:
This one is from 1959:
Eventually their performances, perhaps out of necessity, because less serious, more comedy. For some, it was out of step in an era of black power. They paved the way but were criticized by those for whom they paved it.
There was a fall throughout the ’70s, and bottom may have been the made-for-TV movie, “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” in 1981. Meadowlark had left the team by then over a contract dispute, and was making his own name on TV (“Hello, Larry”) and in movies (“The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh”). But he more or less disappeared from mainstream media by the mid-1980s.
The most startling quote from both obits comes from Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters for a year, in 1959, and who said the following before his death in 1999:
Meadowlark was the most sensational, awesome, incredible basketball player I’ve ever seen. People would say it would be Dr. J or even Jordan. For me, it would be Meadowlark Lemon.
There’s a good documentary to be made here.