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A Look Into Felix Contreras' NPR Archive

Felix Contreras, 2010. Doby Photography/NPR.
Doby Photography
Doby Photography
Felix Contreras, 2010. Doby Photography/NPR.

As stewards of the NPR archives, the RAD team bounces around NPR's history every day. Naturally, we get curious about the stories behind those archives. RAD's Julia Wohl and Zazil Davis-Vazquez decided to ask Felix Contreras, co-creator and co-host of Alt.Latino, to shed light on some of the stories that stick out to him the most after over 20 years at NPR.

A Fresh Start For Jazzman Henry Grimes, April 21, 2005 (From the series Appreciating the Jazz Aged)

What inspired you to pitch this story series?

I got the idea for this series after going to a celebration for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters in New York, 2004. They had all of these musicians come in that had won in the past, and they were on a stage. And at one point, one of the musicians, a guy named Chico Hamilton, left the stage and was walking through the audience. And somebody said, "Hey, Chico, where you going?" He says, "I got to go take my medicine." And it dawned on me to think about how they handled their medicine, how they handled their Social Security, and how they handled their Medicare.

So that got me thinking, and I discovered that a lot of the jazz musicians got paid in cash for club dates, for recordings, no royalties, etc. They ended up not having Social Security taken out. So that was the basis for a series investigating what is out there for musicians when they get to that age. We put them in the heroic light as we should. Like, yea they keep playin', that's what they do. But they also have to.

Following Henry Grimes around was a chance to follow a musician who actually had Social Security because he had disappeared from the jazz scene for probably 30 years, was "rediscovered," and then brought back into the scene. While he was gone, he was working menial day jobs all over the country. So he had 30, 30, 35 years of Social Security. When he "made his comeback," he had the economic means to play when he wanted to. He ended up being very, very prolific in his later years, and he had an advantage over the other musicians because of that Social Security.

You were in the dentist's office with him when he was getting his new set of teeth. What was that like for you?

I was really privileged and honored that he shared something as intimate as acknowledging that he basically let his teeth go because he didn't ever go to a dentist. He basically lost most of his teeth, especially ones that he needed to chew. And this was an opportunity for him to get that back.

I remember very vividly him looking in the little makeup mirror. And the first thing he says is "I look like my father." So that's like going back in, way back in the recesses of his memory. That, to me, showed his humanity. He's a great musician, he did a lot of wonderful things. But he's still somebody's son. He's still somebody's son who probably missed his dad at that point.

Country Legend Merle Haggard Dies At 79, April 6, 2016

What do you like about writing obituaries?

Doing an obit is like an artistic challenge because you want to write it in a way that does storytelling, but also does it in a cinematic way. You have to be able to paint a picture in people's head about what this person's life was like. And you want to tell the facts–just the facts, but you want to be able to tell it in a creative way. That's part of the whole cinematic story process.

I started getting assignments for obituaries when I was a producer on the arts desk in my earliest days at NPR in the early 2000s. And there were two ways to do obituaries. We could do four to six-minute pieces, or the smaller obituaries that ran on the newscast, and all newscast items are 47 seconds. So you have to tell the story of a life in 47 seconds. It became a challenge to do that in a short amount of time, but it also became a privilege to be able to give people their final say on NPR.

The Merle Haggard stands out only because of a couple different things production-wise. He had like, two memoirs out, and one of them was a book on tape. Okay, pre-internet. It was like on a cassette somewhere, and the foreword that he wrote for his first memoir, it was like his epitaph.

So, I get the assignment, "Felix, we got to do Merle Haggard's obit because it looks like he might pass." So I put together an obit and he ended up going into the hospital three times. "Oh, Merle Haggard's dying!" Then boom, next thing you know, I called his publicist and he's back out on the road, playing the county fair in Bakersfield or something. That happened three times because this guy–his body just kept going. So I had time and I had an obit already done, but I was searching for that book on tape, that cassette, and it took me three years.

It ended up being that he lasted long enough for me to find that audio and track it down. And then to be able to get it digitized and include it in the final piece, the last line in the obit, about his relationship with God, was inspired by what he says in the book on tape. It just came to me while I was writing. Those little moments of inspirational writing is why we get in the business, right?

Find more stories from Felix's archive here.

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Zazil Davis-Vazquez
Julia Wohl