In memoriam, 2014

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

The sad dates of the year began early, January 3, with the passing of Phil Everly. I met Phil once, briefly, at a Nashville Songwriters Association Awards banquet in Nashville. But I was lucky enough to see the Everly Brothers live twice. Whatever their personal relationship, on stage they remained perfection.

A week or so later Amiri Baraka, too, was gone. I had his classic 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music In White America, published under his former name LeRoi Jones. But aside from his influence, it should also be noted that he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism, and was in fact a 9-11 truther. At the other end of the humanitarian spectrum was Pete Seeger, whom I knew a bit, as did probably a million others. I had his phone number, which I used on occasion. A few weeks after he died, Leo Kottke told a wonderful and representative story of how Pete had drawn a map to his house for him, he was that accessible.

Frank Military was another great guy, a music publisher and song-finder for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. I sat with him and Tony when the New York chapter of the Recording Academy presented him with a “Heroes Award.” Tony was on my right, Ahmet Ertegun, who was presenting the same award to Tom Silverman, on my left. Always drawing, Tony drew a portrait of Ahmet, handed it to me to pass to him. Ahmet was thrilled.

I didn’t know Christian music A&R luminary Norman Holland, but everyone in that end of the business loved him. Much loved, too, were rock photog Leee Black Childers and singer-songriter Jesse Winchester.

And I didn’t know Loudilla Johnson well, but a lot of old-line country stars like Loretta Lynn did, since Loudilla and her sisters Loretta and Kay, set up her fan club operation, and then IFCO, the International Fan Club Organization.

Jerry Vale, of course, was a quite well known 1950s pop vocalist, while Herb Jeffries, “the Bronze Buckaroo,” was a rare black country singer and actor, who also sang jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington. Calypso singer Maya Angelou I did know, but as Dr. Maya Angelou—thanks to Ashford & Simpson, with whom she recorded, performed, and emceed the poolside entertainment at their fabled July 4th “white parties.”

I used to say hi to my favorite pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was part of the house band. I never met Gerry Goffin, but I did meet his ex-wife/writing partner Carole King. And Cajun country/Opry star Jimmy C. Newman was a dear friend, for whom I wrote CD liner notes.

Bobby Womack and Tommy Ramone were both Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and the latter was a friend, in fact, of all the Ramones, he was probably the nicest and most respectful of me—having been a friend of the band since the beginning of my writing career and author of the first book on the band. I stayed in touch with Tommy throughout his later career as a bluegrass musician, and can’t get over the fact that all four of the originals have now passed on.

I met Elaine Stritch once. When I told her I was a writer, she immediately demanded that I write something about her, which I did the day she died. Shortly after seeing Johnny Winter’s last birthday performance at B.B. King’s, I wrote about him, too, with help from my friend Jon Paris, who played bass with him for many years.

I knew the beloved country music agent Don Light, but not the great rock ‘n’ roll songwriter/producer Bob Crewe, who died the same day as New Orleans studio owner and recording engineer Cosimo Matassa. Opry star George Hamilton IV I knew very well as one of the nicest guys, like Jimmy C., that you could ever hope to meet.

I met the Indian mandolin maestro U. Srinivas, but not Howard Stern Wack Packer Eric the Actor—though I was an equal fan of both. I never met Paul Revere, but know Raiders’ lead vocalist Mark Lindsay and put them all into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon. And I never met Jan Hooks, but was a huge fan of hers since she was the breakout star of Atlanta Superstation WTBS’s Tush—the great Bill Tush being a dear friend.

Studio musician, projects coordinator and freelance A&R Ann Ruckert, too, was a dear friend, not just to me but to probably everyone in the entire New York music scene, and for decades. I didn’t know the great Morells/Skeletons bassist/vocalist/songwriter Lou Whitney well, but always loved talking to the “the elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll in the Midwest,” who was also very much loved by fellow musicians. I think I met Manhattan Transfer founder Tim Hauser, and definitely met Cream’s Jack Bruce—both extremely important in their respective pop-jazz vocal and rock genres.

I was a huge fan of Mr. Acker Bilk, England’s esteemed “trad jazz” clarinetist, whose 1962 pre-Beatles instrumental “Stranger On the Shore” was the first British recording to top the charts in the rock era. I liked Motown’s Jimmy Ruffin of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” fame better than his younger brother David Ruffin of The Temptations. I was inspired to write about Ray Sadecki, who won 20 games pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals when I was 12, when it made me reconsider my youth and own mortality.

I wrote about Claire Barry, who with younger sister Merna were the Yiddish pop singing duo the Barry Sisters, because I knew they influenced Neil Sedaka, who gave me a quote. Likewise, I knew Stanley Rashid of Brooklyn-based Arabic music/video supplier Rashid Sales could say a few words on “incomparable” Lebanese singer of Arab pop, classical and folk music Sabah.

Most everyone knew rock greats Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—both of whom I met—who died within a day of each other in December. Most everyone should have known about Dawn Sears, Vince Gill’s wonderful backup signer, who also sang in Nashville swing band the Time Jumpers.

I loved “Wind Beneath My Wings” co-writer Larry Henley, but more so for his “Bread and Butter” falsetto screech as lead singer of ‘60s vocal group The Newbeats. And we all loved Joe Cocker, who died on Dec. 22. I’m glad I got to interview him and meet him.

Concert Highlights–Robert Earl Keen at City Winery, 6/10/14

Ran into Tom Silverman, one of the most brilliant people I know in the record business, outside Joe’s Pub as I was leaving Tammy Faye Starlite’s Marianne Faithful/Broken English show and rushing to Colin Blunstone’s at City Winery. Quickly thanked him for inviting me and a few hundred of his other closest friends to his birthday party the next night, to start at 10 or 11 or so, but said I had to bow out.

“It’s too late for you,” Tom said, kindly sparing me the embarrassment of having to say so myself.

So Tuesday afternoon (June 10) I showed up again at City Winery, this time for Robert Earl Keen’s sound check. I realize that yes, I’m too old for an 8 p.m. show, so from now on I’m going to review the soundchecks. REK loved the idea, and said the soundchecks are better than the shows anyway.

I got there and steel player Marty Muse was tuning up. Marty had helped me a week ago on an appreciation piece for my favorite steel player Weldon Myrick, whom Marty had interviewed for his steel player documentary project.

Marty said he had started incorporating his favorite Weldon lick into the show, and went into—of course—the steel intro to Gary Stewart’s “Shes Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles).”

“That’s what he was good at,” Marty said, referring to those great, late Myrick licks. He explained how Weldon played the opening lick of “She’s Actin’ Single,” then modulated it, “then they kind of crossed over each other.”

I kind of thought I knew what he was talking about, that is, if that’s what he said. I’m not sure because, if I may digress, after the sound check, I went out in back to catch a few minutes of Commander Cody’s free “Hudson Square” show in the lot behind the club—and fatefully ran into “Concert Joe.” Two hash oil hits later, I not only walked out of the #1 Uptown train twice before my 42nd Street stop (really, I was pulled out by the invisible energy vortex when the train doors opened), but I somehow managed to lose my notebook (my third lost notebook in 10 days), even as I had scribbled down notes on the train!

So I’m not sure if Marty actually said, “then they kind of crossed over each other,” and if he did, what he meant. I do know I’m sorry I missed him incorporating the lick into whateve REK song he played it in that night.

But the REK band, sans Robert Earl, groove from tuning directly into Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” bassist Bill Whitbeck doing vocal honors–and very well. In fact, I’ve always hated the song, even Rick Nelson’s hit cover. I mean, it’s boring melodically, and lyrics like “She’s a hypnotist collector/You are a walking antique”? What the fuck shit is this?

But Robert Earl’s band’s sound check version was exquisite, with Marty Muse starting out on dobro, then switching to pedal steel and then to organ, and Rich Brotherton shifting from mandolin to guitar. Then REK strolled out like he’d just rolled out of bed, even if he was wearing a spiffy seersucker jacket and white hat. But he sounded great on two great songs, during which I killed a beer and forgot to take down the titles. Then I asked him what they were—twice—then lost the notebook.

But I do remember that he’s finishing up an album of bluegrass covers with guests including Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines. And that Marty Muse has a steel guitar that once was custom-made for Weldon Myrick.