No one is happier than me that Billy Gilman did so well on The Voice, finishing second last night.
I was there, at Billboard, for Billy’s first album, One Voice, released in 2000 when he was 12, and got to know him, his mother, and his manager at the time—not to mention Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who had discovered him at age nine. The album’s titletrack hit the Top 40, and with it he also became the youngest artist to have a Top 40 country single.
Back then Ray was confident that Billy had what it took to stay successful after his voice changed, and last night proved him right. Meanwhile, Billy courageously came out as gay two years ago, hours after fellow country artist Ty Herndon came out.
But Billy always had a pop sensibility, as evidenced by his performance in 2000 of “Dream a Dream” with then 14-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and most significantly, his 2003 album Music Through Heartsongs—Songs Based on the Poems of Mattie J.T. Stepanek.
Recorded when he was 14, Heartsongs already showed a deepened voice and a more mature album content due, remarkably, to the “heartsong” lyrics of Mattie Stepanek—the then 13-year-old best-selling poet whose books stemmed from the incurable form of muscular dystrophy that would take his life just before his 14th birthday—and the stylistically varied music by top Nashville songwriters including Richard Leigh, Tom Douglas, Bruce Roberts, Randle Chowning, James Slater, and the album’s (and One Voice‘s) producer David Malloy.
Billy and Mattie had met on Larry King Live.
“He started to read his poems, and I looked over at my father and mother choking up—and it wasn’t like my father,” Billy told me upon the 2009 publication of Messenger: The Legacy Of Mattie J.T. Stepanek And Heartsongs by his mother Jeni Stepanek.
“The kid was really touching someone who wasn’t touched a lot. But they didn’t sound like ordinary poems, but like lyrics. I wondered if there was any way I could do one on a record—as a bonus cut or something—and I called everybody in Nashville who were involved with my career at that point and pitched the idea, and it ended up being the whole record.”
Billy later learned that Mattie had rejected numerous other like offers.
“Other artists couldn’t get the message of his heartsongs,” he explained. “I’m so honored they chose me, because he was one of the greatest people anyone could ever meet.”
Heartsongs‘ standout track was “I Am/Shades of Life,” which combined two of Mattie’s heartsongs.
“David Malloy wrote the melody and I thought, ‘Man! That’s not a song but an anthem!’ I still get letters about it! But it was really long so they cut the words in half for radio. Mattie and I both felt they needed to keep the whole thing because otherwise the story was lost, so the song was re-cut. It was kind of like ‘One Voice,’ and the video was awesome.”
Billy was 21 when I last spoke with him in 2009, and had just begun writing his own songs.
“I had to go home and wait for my voice to change—which gives you an awesome out for anything!” he said. “You can say, ‘Thank you, I’m done,’ and then go on to the next thing. But at the end of the day I’m a country singer, and I never had the opportunity as a kid to do what I wanted to do with my sound—and now I can.”
I believe Billy remains a celebrity ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, having served as co-host of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. As for “I Am/Shades of Life,” it remains a favorite song of mine, with a melody and vocal I find very moving, along with, of course, Mattie Stepanek’s poetry and spoken words.
First thing Storm Large did when she took the stage at the Cutting Room Wednesday night (Oct. 26) was point to the people at one of the nearest tables, who had come to the show having seen her sing with Portland’s sophisticated pop-jazz band Pink Martini.
“It’s different,” Large said of her own shows, to knowing peals of laughter from the room’s large contingent of Large cognoscenti. Sensing, no doubt correctly, the need to drive the point home, she repeated: “It’s different.”
And so Storm Large solo is—raw, ribald and risque. Yes, she threw in Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” as a nod to the classy Pink Martini crowd, though it had howls and Tarzan shrieks within her classic pop songstress context, thereby evoking the earlier part of her unique career. As she explained, she had been a punk-rocker in Portland (fittingly, she fronted a band called The Balls), but her “theater” voice was deemed annoying by rockers as “it wasn’t considered very rock ‘n’ roll” (she emphasized this with a perfectly placed belch).
When it was recommended that she sing Broadway songs, she objected. “This music is horrible!” she had replied, for at that time—the 1980s—her Broadway preferences were Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair. As for Porter, she said, “Cole Porter to Suicidal Tendencies—it’s all the same: Ninety percent of songs are about love. They just look and feel different.”
She further related how hard it had been for her to find her “female voice.” Now 47, she recalled the era of eight-track audio (“I’m old enough!”) and male vocal faves John Denver, Johnny Cash, The Weavers and Harry Belafonte to The Kinks, Clash, Stones and Beatles. And while she offered no female singers (she did cover Dusty Springfield’s take on Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away”), she evoked other fierce female artists like Sandra Bernhard, Judith Owen, Tammy Faye Starlite and Nellie McKay.
Large actually began her set by belting out a jazzy version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Besides Porter and Brel, she covered, beautifully, Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and performed many of her own best-loved songs. These included “Angels in Gas Stations,” which followed a raunchy story about how Large was “fugly” until she “bought some titties” and immediately developed superpowers, among them the ability to wow an apparently newly-matured male (she didn’t put it that way) gas station attendant into giving her a free can of motor oil while her male bandmates cheered her on.
A predictable crowd-pleaser was her feminist anthem “8 Miles Wide,” introduced as “a suck my dick song” but literally about the figurative dimensions of her female genitalia. Here she was joined in the “Sing it boys!” final chorus by those male bandmates (including pianist James Beaton, who’s worked with her 30 years) and joined by award-winning New York playwright Mark Acito, who appears in the song’s video.
“I love New York City, because it shows you who you are–and who you are not,” Large said. But it being a few days before Halloween, the set’s showpiece was a Portland-centered song that she wrote a while back for a benefit CD, Dearly Departed: True Lies in Song, Unearthed at Lone Fir, to help maintain Lone Fir Cemetery–final resting place of Portland pioneers, city founders and developers, military veterans, firefighters, women’s suffragists, politicians, early Chinese workers, asylum patients, and Eastern Europeans who migrated to Oregon—who had met with untimely departures.
Dearly Departed is comprised of songs about some of the residents of Lone Fir, including Charity Lamb, Oregon’s first convicted axe murderess (a victim of domestic violence, she took an axe to her husband’s head in 1854), and subject of Large’s “Asylum Road.”
“She did the laundry in the penitentiary, then an insane asylum,” said Large, who said a lot of other things about the historical needs of the men of the “Wild West” that was Portland at that time. “After reading all about her, I wondered, ‘Why weren’t you a hooker?’ But she was a frontier wife in the 1800s, and I felt so super-sad about her, and the responsibility to tell her story with respect for her situation and struggle, yet make it musical and entertaining.”
Returning to the 2000s, Large darted into the audience, confiscating cellphones and shooting photos of their owners before switching them up, to be sorted out later. “This is what live music is for!” she railed. “Just be here.”
She ranted, too, about driverless cars and iPad-ordering at airports–modern developments that take away jobs from people and make them obsolete. And wishing Hillary Clinton a happy 69th birthday, she suggested that “we all need to brush up on foreign languages, in case we all need to flee.”
Here she listed all the horrors associated with the Trump campaign, surmising that he never achieved “enough pussy to grab, or buildings with his name on it.” Yet here is also where the divide in the Storm Large stage act—ofttimes X-rated, but in a most uplifting way–was most pronounced: “Who hurt you?” she asked of Trump, then humanized him—at least to a degree.
“Like it or not, he’s a human being,” she said. “He’s doing a lot of terrible shit. I’ve said some terrible shit.”
It was an appropriate preface to her song “Somebody to Love,” prior to closing, appropriately, with a reprise of the National Anthem.
If you follow me on Twitter you know how I like to post YouTube videos relating, usually loosely, to trending celebration days-everything from National Donut Day (June 2), say, to Spirit Day, which occurred just last week (Oct. 20). As for Spirit Day, though, I didn’t know what it was when I started looking for Spirit’s 1968 hit “I Got a Line on You” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In the Sky.”
Before posting them, luckily, I learned that Spirit Day, instituted in 2010, recognizes united opposition against bullying and shows support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, with Spirit Day observerse wearing purple–the color representing “spirit” on the rainbow LGBT flag. The day is a big enough deal to have it’s own special Twitter purple ribbon symbol for hashtags.
Clearly, “I Got a Line on You” and “Spirit In the Sky” weren’t appropriate for Spirit Day, not that I always let political correctness always stand in the way. But I was sensitive enough this time to the significance of LGBT concerns to seek a better video, and the perfect one came to mind instantly: “Born This Way.”
No, not the vastly inferior Lady Gaga song-that was a total rip from Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” as everyone–including Madonna–knows! No, I mean Ashford & Simpson’s emotionally powerful and empowering “Born This Way,” with Terry Lavell singing, which they hastily released digitally early in 2011 when Gaga announced her upcoming single of the same title and somewhat similar, if decidedly vainglorious, theme.
Ashford & Simpson’s “Born This Way,” which was written in 2006 for a musical adaptation of E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel Invisible Life about a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity, was the first recording for Lavell, who was then starring as Mercedes in the hit Broadway revival of La Cage Aux Folles.
“Never in my life did I think I’d record a song with the most legendary songwriters ever!” he told me for examiner.com. “I love it, and everyone who’s heard it loves it.”
Indeed, it was a fabulous song and dramatic performance by a guy who clearly understood the lyric, as related by a young man who knew he was different since he was “a little baby boy,” ignored by his mother and beaten by his father, who prayed he could change but woke up every day the same—and finally discovers self-acceptance:
For those just like me who don’t always seem to fit
We’ve got a right to be
We’ve got to stand up to it
The time is now, this is it
Look at this big beautiful world and all its varieties
Each living thing has its purpose
We’re all in His image
What could be better
We’re supposed to live and love together.
And the chorus:
I was born this way
It’s not your problem, it’s not your fault
God made me and it’s okay
So don’t try to change me
I was born this way.
Lavell, a New Orleans native who had previously toured in Hairspray and Smokey Joe’s Café and appeared on TV in Sex and the City and The Dave Chappelle Show, had spectacularly introduced “Born This Way” when it was a key song in producer showcases for Invisible Life. He reprised his electrifying performance at Ashford & Simpson’s September,
2008 shows at Feinstein’s when he stunned audiences by coming out from the wings unannounced to sing it with them and for that moment, at least, all but steal the show: “The sassy long-legged beanpole,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “appeared out of nowhere to zigzag across the stage like a bolt of lightning.”
“They came to see La Cage and afterwards said they wanted to record it,” said Lavell of Nick and Val. “Their version is just as good [as Gaga’s]. It’s different and more of an anthem song.”
And while Nick and Val didn’t write “Born This Way” expressly for him, Lavell felt a personal connection with it.
“It’s the first time in my entire career that I’ve had something that feels like it was written for me,” he said. “The crazy part is that it wasn’t! But it just feels like verbatim, it’s the story of my life–like I lived this.”
He added: “I want so much to do work that means something, and ‘Born This Way’ is a celebration of being exactly who you are. Of course you understand it’s about a guy being gay, but so many people can relate because it’s just telling an individual story about being whoever you are, and is more a celebration song–in the great Ashford & Simpson dance tune style.”
I also spoke with Nick and Val when “Born This Way” was released.
“It’s weird how the same ideas and thoughts can float into the universe and emerge from different minds and different places,” Val said, referring to Gaga’s song. “I think there’s enough love in the world for Lady Gaga and Terry Lavell,” said Nick–as only Nick would.
Nick and Val wrote 20 or so songs for the Invisible Life musical, which, wrongly, was never produced. But I vividly remember that they’re all great–having twice seen the run-through for producers. Regarding “Born This Way,” Holden lauded it as “a high-powered dance number,” and like so many Ashford & Simpson classics, it does in fact build in drama and intensity to a huge chorus—“that big A&S sound!” as Nick once put it, when I interviewed him and Val many years ago for Billboard.
That big A&S sound. What was so big about that big A&S sound was the structure of gospel music–the tradition that they came out of–that they brought to secular music, which worked particularly well in the theatrical context of Invisible Life. A&S fans, of course, can point to their masterpiece 1982 experiment in R&B theater with their Street Opera album, the entire B-side of which was a mini-Porgy and Bess suite of songs depicting the hard if not harsh realities of urban Africa-American working-class life—though never lacking in the love and hope that A&S more than anything represent.
What’s especially sad about Invisible Life is that “Born This Way” remains the only song from it that’s ever surfaced. Nick and Val themselves recorded another key song from the Invisible Life compositions, the stirring, climactic “God Has Love For Everyone,” its title pretty much telling you everything. I still hear the chorus ringing triumphantly in my mind.
But I’d almost forgotten about the “Born This Way” video! The clip mixes studio footage of Lavell recording the song with performance footage shot at a Thursday Open Mic show at Nick and Val’s fabled Sugar Bar restaurant/nightclub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
It may have been the last video shot of Nick. If so, well, it couldn’t have been more fitting, with him singing with the background singers, generously giving the spotlight up for another artist like he–and Val, in the video playing piano–did all the time.
Friday night’s (Oct. 21) Cutting Room pairing of Project/Object—The Music of Frank Zappa, featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston with San Diego electronic ensemble Swarmius was a dream bill—but only for two dreamers in the room.
That would be me and Joseplh Martin Waters, the professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University—and the acclaimed composer-performer who conceived Swarmius. For the Cutting Room gig Swarmius was made up of conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and guests Gene Pritsker (guitar) the artist Mark Kostabi, whose artwork graces the Cutting Room walls, and who also composes and plays piano.
The term “trans-classical” has been created to describe the music of Swarmius, and it does in fact serve up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, heavy on classical, jazz, rock and electronics and performed by the monster musicians the concept requires. His Cutting Room set focused on new material from the forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical, and like preceding Swarmius recordings, is surprisingly accessible, with Joe’s conducting (without a baton) while programming from an Apple laptop onstage with his instrumentalists: You can actually follow the development of his complicated compositions easily just by watching the emotional drama and intensity in his hands and face as he conducts, said compositions including, at the Cutting Room, Trans-Classical‘s “instant gratification single” “EeOoEe,” which has just been released digitally ahead of the album.
That’s right, I still call him Joe, because he was just Joe Waters back at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, Class of 1970, albeit a musical whiz kid even then, when his band was Spindlebean—a loose aggregate of musicians, and friends (and at least one stoner) who sang along to Joe’s Zappa-like lyrics and melodies. So it was extraordinary indeed to be sitting next to Joe at the Cutting Room, 46 years later, listening to longtime Zappa band veterans vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis and keyboardist Don Preston, now 84, play the music of Frank Zappa.
“The first Zappa album that really caught my attention was Uncle Meat,” said Joe afterward, referring to the 1969 double album. “This I listened to obsessively with my friends while we were experimenting with marijuana and psychedelics in high school, and it became a central playlist of our little community. But my all-time favorite was We’re Only in It for the Money . I found the album cover and the title shocking, and was incredulous that it could be lampooning the gods of popular music–the Beatles–jabbing and belittling their generation-defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already achieved iconic status.”
He continued: “The first time I heard We’re Only in It for the Money I was tripping on acid, and the ‘through-composed’ album structure, where one song seamlessly merged into the next, and where text and composition, social commentary, acoustic instruments and electronics all swirled around together and through each other, was a deep aesthetic revelation.”
Joe recalled attending his first Zappa concert sometime around the release of his classic 1969 Hot Rats album.
“I remember sneaking into a big music festival, climbing over the fence to see the band! I found the music on Hot Rats to be generally intriguing and aesthetically challenging, in places puzzling, and inspirational. I think my favorite work was ‘Peaches en Regalia.’ But otherwise, I had not attended a Zappa concert since seeing the original band sometime in the early ‘70s at a music festival in Milwaukee. It was the second time I had seen them, and the period when they were doing pieces like ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ so it must’ve been somewhere around 1974 [when the song was released as a single]. It was in a big auditorium, and I was seated far away from the stage–and, frankly I didn’t really like that music very much: I found it mildly funny but musically uninteresting compared to the earlier music that I had loved and listened to incessantly. And I didn’t particularly like the virtuosic, modal-based guitar solos that Zappa was putting out in those days. I found them harmonically uninteresting and long winded.”
Indeed, after that Milwaukee Zappa show, Joe’s interest in Zappa waned. “Soon after I was pursuing my own formal music education, which took me far away from popular music for the better part of the next decade.”
My own interest in Frank Zappa, however, only increased around this time, especially since I began writing a couple years later. I’d see him many times after moving to New York in ’82, including his annual Halloween shows at the Beacon Theatre. I even met him a few times, interviewed him on the phone, got to know his late wife Gail a bit, and son Dweezil—for whom I wrote his first Zappa Plays Zappa tour bio. I met his younger brother Ahmet, too, when he and his wife signed children’s books at New York’s BookExpo last year at the Javits Center.
But back to Joe.
“I never lost complete interest in Zappa,” he said, “and especially became reinvested when he achieved recognition by the esteemed French avant-garde classical conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, the brilliant, belligerent, influential and outspoken champion of, and contributor to, the notorious mid-century genre of classical music that came to be known as ‘post-World War II integral serialism.’ This genre involved the application of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method to every musical parameter. Literally every note in these compositions had a complete and individualized set of performance instructions, which resulted in intense gibberish for both performer and listener. The aesthetic philosophy underlying this music was Schoenberg’s dictum ‘If it’s art it’s not for the people, and if it’s for the people it’s not art,’ which dismisses all of the music beloved the world over, including the Beatles, Gershwin, and Dylan. Dylan’s recent anointment with the Nobel prize in literature is a repudiation of this snobbery, but the fire still rages in the forests of academia.
“Boulez, in the early 1950s, with his sharp tongue eviscerated and destroyed any composer who dared to stray outside integral serialism’s incomprehensible non-melodies, non-harmonies, and non-rhythms, which were the result of overthinking and misunderstanding not only the neurophysiological mechanisms by which organized sound accrues meaning and emotional agency, but also the role and responsibility of the artist in the context of a majority proletarian culture. So his recognition of Zappa represented a turnabout of sorts, though of course Zappa had since childhood always had one foot in the classical avant-garde: On his early albums he had a quote from Edgard Varèse, another French composer from earlier in the 20th century—‘The present day composer refuses to die.’”
Joe himself had been “drenched in classical music of the 20th century, a large body of work which by and large has and had been completely ignored by the listening public as well as the community of professional classical musicians and conductors, but which was promoted exclusively by the composers employed as professors in the academies of music throughout Europe, the U.S. and all western looking music institutions throughout the world. By then I was already struggling to reconcile my populist rock band roots with the ivory tower aesthetic vested on me by music school. I listened to The Yellow Shark [Zappa’s 1993 avant-garde classical album with the German Ensemble Modern, his last album release prior to his death that year, for which Boulez was among those thanked in the liner notes] a few times and put it aside, planning to revisit it later–but still haven’t gotten back to it 23 years after.
“So all this was my mind set when I sat down after our set at the Cutting Room, to listen to Project/Object, fronted by the great vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis, who joined Zappa in 1978, and Don Preston, who played with Zappa from 1966 to 1974–the years during which I was a rapt teenage fan. In short, I didn’t know what to expect. And what I discovered, to my delight, was a huge range of repertoire that spanned about 20 years as far as I know of the Zappa catalog, all played extremely well by an ensemble of eight musicians, who had been on tour for the past month or so and were super tight, and at the same time, super relaxed.”
Yes, it really was a great show. They did one of my faves from Frank & The Mothers of Invention’s 50-year-old 1966 debut album Freak Out! —“Who Are the Brain Police?”, also “Down at Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage and “Call Any Vegetable” from Just Another Band in L.A., which had my pals Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) from The Turtles on background vocals.
Special mention goes to Don Preston, who has 20 years on me, somehow. Just so great on “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from We’re Only In It for the Money, even playing a solo by tapping on his cellphone—a solo so hot his phone erupted into flame. Joe Jackson was in the house and seemed impressed, though I wasn’t, since my Samsung Galaxy Note 7 can do the same thing.
“There was a wonderful warm, friendly vibe that exuded from the band as a whole and from the individual members, who were open and welcoming, supportive and curious about Swarmius,” said Joe, and sure enough, Project/Object’s vocalist/guitarist Andre Cholmondeley gave the band a big plug at the start of their set.
“I also discovered myself liking a lot of the repertoire that I had been so dismissive of in the mid-‘70s, such as Joe’s Garage. I think I was too young to understand the understatement and artistic brilliance underneath the overt sarcasm, humorous allegory and punchy rock grooves. All in all I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear with the pleasure of hearing fine musicians deeply committed to music that came from a singular genius. I have a newly deepened respect for Zappa, and I am looking forward to revisiting, and re-listening to—finally!—Yellow Shark!”
And I’m looking forward to seeing Dweezil’s 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F @%K He Wants show Sunday night, the night before Halloween, at, where else? The Beacon!
Now comes word of a North American Zombies tour next spring–to continue to England and Europe later in the year–to include the final full-album performances of Odessey and Oracle reuniting all four surviving members of the group: lead vocalist Colin Blunstone, keyboardist/vocalist Rod Argent, bassist/vocalist Chris White and drummer Hugh Grundy (original guitarist Paul Atkinson died in 2004).
Also next year—in March—comes publication of a lavish, LP-sized coffee-table book, featuring lyrics for the Odessey and Oracle songs and many of their other classics, all handwritten by the songwriters and accompanied by original artwork from Terry Quirk, creator of the famous Odessey and Oracle album cover, and Vivienne Boucherat, who has conceived individual illustrations for each of its songs. Text will additionally include Zombies’ anecdotes behind the songs and their recording.
Released in 1968–ironically after the group had disbanded—Odessey and Oracle yielded The Zombies’ landmark hit, “Time of the Season,” the following year. It’s been widely acknowledged since then as a pop album masterpiece, with “Time of the Season” being used in numerous films and TV shows.
Blunstone and Argent, who enjoyed successful solo careers following the original Zombies demise, reunited in 1998 and then revived The Zombies name in 2004. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Odessey and Oracle, the four surviving original Zombies performed three concerts at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in March, 2008.
Last year White and Grundy again joined their former bandmates for select performances of the album in the U.S., in which The Zombies current lineup–bassist Jim Rodford, guitarist Tom Toomey and Steve Rodford (Jim’s son) on drums–also played. Those shows furthered the band’s remarkable resurgence as a major concert draw more than 50 years after they first hit big with “She’s Not There”—their 1964 single inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame just last year.
As many reviewers have noted, The Zombies today have somehow never sounded better.
Singer-songwriter-producer Kashif died Sept. 25 at 59. He had only recently resumed performing after a long absence from the concert scene—and was working hard on a documentary series about the history of R&B.
But outside of his self-published 1996 book Everything You’d Better Know About the Record Industry, little had been heard from the multi-talented R&B artist, who was such a major force in the 1980s.
“He was turning everyone’s head around about the electronics of R&B,” says music researcher/historian and former Billboard columnist Brian Chin. “That was when his song ‘I’m in Love’ by Evelyn King was sold out in every record store, and I was hearing it several times in one afternoon–on every radio station I was monitoring.”
That was 1981, when Evelyn “Champagne” King’s recording of Kashif’s “I’m in Love” topped both soul and dance charts in Billboard—and reached No. 40 on its Hot 100. Also in the ‘80s, he recorded his own albums—as Chin notes, heavily employing electronics and synthesizers—while working with the likes of Melba Moore, George Benson, Meli’sa Morgan and Kenny G. He produced Whitney Houston’s first big hit “You Give Good Love” for her self-titled 1985 debut album and duetted with her on its “Thinking About You,” which he also co-wrote.
He scored, too, in the New Jack Swing era of the late ‘80s, with his own hit “Personality.”
“Kashif was so impeccably qualified top-to-bottom that his how-to book inevitably was titled Everything You’d Better Know About the Record Industry,” says Chin. “He remained accessible for three decades of hit-making, and that’s why I know I’m always going to feel his loss personally.”
Oscar Brand, one of folk music’s great luminaries, died Sept 30 at 96.
He was “a national treasure,” per folk music authority Stephanie P. Ledgin.
“Oscar Brand has left an enormous number of accomplishments in music, television and beyond that will entertain and educate for many years to come,” says Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “He was warm, funny, engaging, abundantly generous in his talents. It was truly an honor to have known and worked with him.”
Ledgin’s connection with Brand came during the latter part of a remarkable 70-year career dating back to the 1940s. His Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival radio show, which aired every Saturday on New York’s WNYC-AM, extended into its 70th year after its launch in December, 1945. On it he introduced the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, Lead Belly, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, all the while refusing payment so as to avoid being censored.
A two-time Peabody Award winner, Brand was a most prolific musician himself, and after his Army service during World War II moved to Greenwich Village and wrote a book How to Play the Guitar Better Than Me. He eventually recorded hundreds of campaign songs, drinking songs, college songs, children’s songs, vaudeville songs, sports car songs, protest songs, military songs, outlaw songs and lascivious ditties, filling over 100 albums. Doris Day charted in 1952 with his “A Guy Is a Guy,” and his “Something to Sing About”—also known as “This Land of Ours”—became the unofficial national anthem of his native Canada.
Additionally, Brand hosted the Canadian TV show Let’s Sing Out (in which he featured such folk music pioneers as Malvina Reynolds, The Womenfolk and The Weavers, and introduced then unknown Canadian singers like Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot) and collaborated on musicals including The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N.
Brand participated in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches, and was a board member in the ‘60s of the Children’s Television Workshop, for which he helped develop Sesame Street. He joined the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) board of directors in the early years of the organization and was responsible for creating the first SHOF Museum, then located at One Times Square in 1980.
On behalf of SHOF, president/CEO Linda Moran expressed gratitude for Brand’s “invaluable contributions,” adding, “he will always be remembered fondly by those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him.”
Moran further notes the many years that Brand served as the organization’s curator—and that he remained an active board member up until 2014.
“On a personal level, Oscar was a handsome, charming, witty, brilliant gentleman, and I will always fondly remember him for the support and guidance he gave me in my role as president of the SHOF,” says Moran.
It’s been 10 years at least since I and a number of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee members were let go, ostensibly, the form email firing us said, to bring in younger ones more conversant in 1970s rock. Then a couple years ago there was a final bloodletting ridding the committee of virtually all nominators—many of whom had been on since the RockHall’s launch—who had any knowledge of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when rock ‘n’ roll really was rock ‘n’ roll.
Well, with today’s announcement of the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees, the turnover is pretty much complete. First time nominees Pearl Jam and Tupac Shakur, both in their first year of eligibility, are most certainly shoo-ins, with the other 17 nominees also coming mainly from the ‘70s and after.
Looking at the nominees from my g-g-generation, I’m happy to see The Zombies back on the list—one of the few ‘60s artists who sound just as good today as they did 50 years ago, when they broke artistic ground in the British Invasion. The MC5 are back, too, and also deserve to go in—though neither are no-brainers for RockHall voters with fading memories or who are just too young to remember. Other pre-‘70s nominees are first-timers Steppenwolf and Joan Baez—both deserving but likely too far back in the past, and five-time nominee Joe Tex, who will likely have to wait at least for his sixth.
The two other ‘80s acts—Jane’s Addiction and Depeche Mode–are both first-timers, and thanks to short-term memories would seem to have a good shot at going in unless Pearl Jam and Tupac cancel them out. That leaves 10 nominees—all from the ‘70s–which it’s been determined that I know little about, no matter that I wrote the first book on The Ramones.
Starting with punk/new wave, then, first-time nominee Bad Brains are worthy, but probably too obscure for a more mainstream electorate, who might prefer The Cars, back with their second nomination. On the R&B tip, I just don’t feel it for Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan (both second-timers), though disco’s Chic, with their record-setting 11th nomination, just might turn the trick this time, if only to put them out of their misery—plus Nile Rodgers and his late Chic co-founder Bernard Edwards just went into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Chicago went in last year, which may bode well for the softer ‘70s rock of Yes, now on its third nomination, and first timers Journey and Electric Light Orchestra, with ELO getting the nod here on merit.
The final two nominees—Kraftwerk and J. Geils Band—are significant, for sure, but probably also limited in the glitz factor that is now such a major part of awards recognition, even by what should be such a credible organization as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But credibility, as everyone knows, disappeared from the RockHall long ago.
Country Music Hall of Fame inductee and Grand Ole Opry star Jean Shepard, who died Sept. 25 at 82, stood well apart from other female country artists.
“Jean Shepard was a great singer and entertainer whose career spanned from the era of honky-tonk music to the present,” says acclaimed country singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell. “She was a pioneering female artist, one of the first to be honored with membership in the Grand Ole Opry in the mid-1950s, and as the widow of Hawkshaw Hawkins, she was a survivor of one of the most tragic losses in country music history.”
Shepard was married to country star Hawkins, who died in the 1963 plane crash that also claimed the lives of Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.
“You can hear the strength of her character in her voice, which was bold and hard-edged like the honky-tonks she started performing in as a teenager, but could also be surprisingly tender and sweet,” notes Cantrell. “It was that range as a singer that drove her recording career, kept her a favorite on the Opry stage for almost 60 years, and ensured her inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame just a few years ago.”
Shepard’s career took off in 1953, when she was 18 and sang the refrain of Ferlin Husky’s heartbroken recitation “A Dear John Letter.”
Her solo 1950s hits included “A Satisfied Mind,” “Beautiful Lies” and “I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me,” and her 1954 LP Songs of a Love Affair was country music’s first female “concept” album. Throughout her career she remained a country music purist, eschewing the more refined “countrypolitan” pop sound of the ‘70s.
Her last Top 10 hit came in 1973 with “Slippin’ Away,” which reached No. 4. It was one of many Bill Anderson songs recorded by Shepard, and fellow Country Music Hall of Fame/Grand Ole Opry member Anderson, posting on his website, surmised that he had known her longer than he had any other country artist.
He recalled their initial “infamous” radio interview backstage in Athens, Ga., in 1956, as well as the night in 2015 when he introduced her on the occasion of her 60th anniversary as an Opry member; within that span “there wasn’t a time when Jean wasn’t a part of my life,” he wrote—“a big part.”
Indeed, when Anderson started a syndicated TV show in 1965, Shepard was his first featured female vocalist.
“When she was looking for a song with which to begin a new recording career at United Artists Records, she chose one of mine called ‘Slippin’ Away,’” he said. “Later, when she was looking for an idea from which to build a ‘concept’ album around, she chose to honor me with a 12-song collection of nothing but songs I had written–songs that have never been sung any better than Jean Shepard sang them.”
Anderson recalled touring with Shepard “in the days when we worked the old package shows inside the new sports arenas that were springing up around the country back in the ‘60s. Before the shows, we all dressed in the hockey players’ or the basketball players’ locker rooms with absolutely no privacy [and] you knew it was getting close to show time when Jean Shepard’s voice would echo across the room, ‘Turn your heads, boys, I’m a-changin’ clothes. And if you don’t turn your heads, I’m changin’ ’em anyway!’”
Shepard, he concluded, “was talented, funny, opinionated, passionate, and genuine to the core. You might not always agree with her, but you always knew where she stood. She loved traditional country music, and didn’t have a lot of patience with those who didn’t. She was outspoken to a fault at times, and that might have delayed her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame for a while. But her sheer talent was undeniable: She, along with Kitty Wells, pioneered country music for women–and there finally came a time in 2011 when the voters couldn’t deny her contributions any longer.”
Acclaimed composer-performer Joseph Martin Waters, whose “trans-classical” ensemble Swarmius serves up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, had a special understanding of the late electronic music pioneer Don Buchla.
“He invented brilliant and original electronic interfaces and synthesizers that explored new ways for electronic music performers to attain the subtlety and richness of expression possible with traditional instruments,” says Waters, himself an electronic music composer, and professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University.
“Think for a moment how difficult it is to play the violin,” continues Waters. “There are many jokes about the horrible noises emerging from beginning musicians torturing their instruments and their parents! But the slow mastery of the wild little beast transforms the violin over many years eventually into a powerful artistic weapon in the hands of a magician, one able to pull and twist emotions like salt water taffy.”
In addition to composing, Buchla, who died Sept. 14 at 79, manufactured and mastered his own instruments, including a random voltage-controlled modular synthesizer that he called Source of Uncertainty. His goal was to create new sounds out of his devices, these also including the Music Easel (he named a quintet of Music Easel players the Electric Weasel Ensemble), Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator, and the Buchla Box.
“People of the Amazon believed their instruments to be supernatural creatures,” notes Waters. “Those are the kinds of electronic music instruments Buchla aimed for. They were rare and hand-built, and prized by those who could get their hands on them. I was fortunate to have access to one called Thunder about 15 years ago for a few months: It was a midi interface essentially, but quite unique in that it required you to put your palms on the surface–which looked like something out of the hieroglyphics in an Egyptian pyramid, or maybe Mayan Stone carvings–and it reacted to the pressure points from various fingers and various points of the hand. It was very cool!”
Waters returns to New York with Swarmius this Friday for a show at the Cutting Room, opening for Frank Zappa alumni Ike Willis and Don Preston and their current undertaking Project/Object: The Music Of Frank Zappa featuring Willis and Preston. The Zappa-influenced Waters’ Swarmius, in a quintet configuration (conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and keyboardist/vocalist Toni James) likened by the founder to “a kind of extreme sports for music,” will perform new material from its forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical–likely in the mold of previous Swarmius recordings combining syncopated Afro-American rhythms of rock, jazz, hip hop and salsa fused with classical and layered with complex polyrhythmic textures.