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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

LL Cool J & how his stage name and song title celebrate his personal heritage



I’ve really been enjoying watching Finding Your Roots, the PBS show hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates. It’s a very clever twist on our national obsession with celebrities---instead of the schadenfreude of hearing the latest A-list gossip, or gawking at the red carpet fashionistas, Professor Gates genially and artfully invites us in to eavesdrop on his tete-a tetes with the likes of John McCain, Norman Lear, Gloria Steinem, and Maya Rudolph, in which we get to share their wonder, delight, and, at times, tears, as they learn about their own roots. And, in the process, I suspect Gates also achieves a subtle didactic purpose---i.e., of assuring that, along the way, we all also learn something about our complicated collective heritage as Americans. So, I recommend the show, as a lowkey addition to your TV viewing choices.

Which brings me to the particular episode that surprisingly caught my attention in my capacity as wordplay sleuth, as I hint in my Subject Line. A few weeks ago, in an episode upon which the good professor seemed to bestow particular loving care, he had only two guests instead of the usual complement of three – Sean Combs (aka P Diddy) and rapper LL Cool J—two icons of African American music and culture.

I don’t want to overload this post with spoilers for the episode, in case you get a chance to watch it in the near future, so I’ll focus only on the one thread which caught my eye and ear. But keep in mind that there is so much else going on in this extraordinary episode for the heart and mind than I will be discussing in the remainder of this post.

So, let me get down to specifics. I was enjoying watching Gates lead each of these younger men on a remarkable journey back in time—and, atypically for the episodes I’ve seen, Gates also chose just the right moment along the way to speak personally about himself---as they learned about their ancestors-both those who survived enslavement, but also those who, surprisingly, were born free (or, at least, as free as people of color could be in racist 19th century America).

Early on, Gates had asked about the origin of his unusual and lyrical stage name, and LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) replied that he had invented it at age 14, “totally out of his imagination”, as a kind of wishful thinking abbreviation of “Ladies Love Cool James”. Then Gates proceeded to unravel for his guest the mystery of the parentage of LL’s mother, a mystery which LL’s mother had heard vague whispers about ---and that’s precisely when my inner wordplay sleuth was unexpectedly shaken awake, when the name of LL’s biological maternal grandmother was eventually revealed to be……………… Ethel Mae Jolly.

Now, before I tell you what it was I saw in that name as it materialized on the genealogy chart that made me shake my head in wonder, can you guess what it was?


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Those who follow along here know that I do a lot of crossword puzzles, and I’ve also played a lot of Scrabble over the years, plus, I’ve been intensively studying all the different forms of wordplay that Jane Austen and Shakespeare deployed in their writings, including acrostics, anagrams, and the like. So, all of that wordplay activity over a very long time is almost certainly why I almost instantaneously spotted the following eerie transformation (imagine each letter is a Scrabble tile that can be moved) between one name and another, requiring only a few short steps:

ETHEL MAE JOLLY   == >  MAE JOLLY == > OLLY J AE == LL COOL J!

Although not a perfect anagram, LL COOL J is pretty darned close, particularly in sound, to ETHEL MAE JOLLY, don’t you think? It’s just jumbled up a bit.

And this semantic parallelism was even more amazing, because it came right after Gates informed LL that his bio maternal grandfather, great-uncle (John Henry Lewis, world light heavyweight champion from 1935-9), and great-great-grandfather, whose existence LL Cool J had also been completely unaware of till sitting there in the TV studio, had all been professional boxers.

And what was remarkable about that, was that LL Cool J promptly responded that both he and his mother had always been zealous boxing fans---so much so, in fact, that one of his well known songs, from 1990, was entitled “Mamma said knock you out”, and the video for same shows LL Cool J in a boxing ring!:


Now what could be a good explanation for these two remarkable coincidences, assuming, as I do, that we should take LL Cool J at his word that (1) he made up his stage name without any conscious knowledge whatsoever that he was echoing the surname of his actual biological maternal grandmother, and (2) he and his mother had not been aware of the existence, let alone the name or profession, of his biological maternal grandfather, when they both came to love boxing.

He had no idea, because he and his mother had always been told, and believed, that her biological parents were actually another couple, Eugene Grissom, a jazz musician who gave him his first guitar at age 8, and his wife, Ellen Hightower, who had not only raised his mother, but also helped his mother raise LL Cool J himself from an early age.

LL Cool J’s explanation for this eerie coincidence re boxing, affirmed by Gates, was that there was something in the family genes that somehow expressed itself over generations. This reminded me of the well known identical twin studies, which showed that such twins, even when separated at birth, often make astonishingly similar choices in life as adults.

Now, genes could indeed explain the boxing connection, but what about that ETHEL MAE JOLLY == > LL COOL J anagrammatical connection? Just a wild coincidence?

I am suspicious of big coincidences, and so it was while asking myself this question, that a second explanation occurred to me, one that would account for the coincidences on both sides of his maternal family tree. From the dates of birth provided during the show, it was easy to deduce that LL Cool J’s grandfather had been 30, and his grandmother 19, when his mother was born. According to Gates, his mother’s birth certificate, dated a year and a half after her birth, suggested that a legal adoption had been arranged, and in those days, children were often not told that they had been adopted.

And it was also obvious from LL Cool J’s repeated statements, that his adoptive grandparents, who were no longer living, had both always been incredibly loving and kind to both him and his mother.

Given all of that, I believe there is another naturalistic explanation which fits all the evidence, which is not inconsistent with the genetic explanation, and which fits very closely with LL Cool J's repeated assertions about the kindness and love showered on his mother and him by his adoptive grandparents.

Think about the most likely scenario that led to his mother being adopted at age 1 1/2 in 1946 - it is likely that her adoptive parents knew the circumstances of LL’s mother's birth, and possibly even were personally connected to one of the bio parents: a handsome high profile 30 year old man [was he married at the time?] and a 19 year old girl.  Keeping the baby must not have been a viable option, and so the next best alternative was a placement with loving childless adoptive parents.

But here’s the real payoff of this theory--- perhaps the reason why both LL Cool J and his mother were such avid boxing fans, and why LL Cool J came up with that particular stage name, was one and the same---his adoptive grandparents wanted to give their adoptive daughter (and then her son) a sense of her/their biological heritage - and so they somehow, early on, planted the name “Jolly” (the surname of the bio mother) in the child's mind as something positive, and they encouraged a love of boxing in both (the bio father's famous profession).

I’m also reminded of the poignant climax of Rain Man, when the protagonist Tom Cruise realizes that “Rain Man” was his babyish way of saying his older brother’s name, Raymond, played of course by Dustin Hoffman.

Of course, I can’t assert with certainty that my theory is correct, but it seems pretty plausible to me. And what’s more, I think it would be lovely if true, a beautiful gift to LL Cool J and his mother from Eugene Grissom and Ellen Hightower, even if they didn’t realize it had been delivered until long after it was “sent”.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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