Country music documentary series

Ken Burns has done it again. While not a huge country music fan, I am four episides into the eight part series on “Country Music.” It has been a wonderful history lesson that goes beyond the storytelling of country music.

To avoid spoiling the series for those who have not seen it, let me offer a few key themes:

– the show utilizes historical insights from numerous perspectives – country performers, songwriters, radio DJs, historians and even performers from other genres;

– country music was influenced by and influenced other genres of music – mountain hymns, blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, rock-a-billy, pop music, etc.;

– country music was born in Bristol, VA (and TN – the city splits the state line) due to an ad seeking talent to record, but broadened in a number of places based economic migration resulting from the dust bowl and depression, which created these intersections of styles and influences;

– finally, it is the stories within and behind the music – to offer one tidbit, the jazz great Charlie Parker was asked why he paid attention to country music? He said it was the great stories.

There are too many names to mention, many of whom I have never heard. But, exposure to folks like Maybelle Carter who popularized a guitar playing style or Earl Scruggs who popularized a three-finger banjo technique or Jimmy Rodgers who perfected the use of yodeling to accent a song are three examples of its influence.

Rather than give too much away, please watch. It is worth the effort. I look forward to the remainder of the series.

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Competition and love

“Competition and love.” This was noted as a key set of ingredients in the success portrayed in the Showtime documentary “Hitsville: The Making of Motown.” The story is largely told by the people who made up Motown, but the two most prominent narrators and contributors are best friends Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.

The story is fascinating and a must-see documentary which will provide a memory lane for those old enough and fans of the music of any age. The story is told by several behind the scenes players, along with the talent we heard and those who created the words and music. A few admiring stars like John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey, Neil Young, Little Richard and others add context.

Motown was birthed the same year I was in 1958. Robinson told Gordy that if they were going to be taken advantage by the music industry (after an insulting $3.19 royalty on a popular song), Gordy needed to start his own company. With an $800 loan from his aunt and other money he pooled, he bought a house that would serve as the studio, headquarters and Gordy’s living quarters.

So, blend in ingredients like a business model that borrowed from Ford’s assembly line, that was fed by a city that had public, faith-based, and street music pool of talent, that mixed talented songwriters, that drafted local jazz musicians to form a talented in-house session band called “The Funk Brothers,” that groomed people to present themselves so the music could be heard, that mentored talent allowing them to grow and you end up with an organization built to create sustainable great music.

But, “competition and love,” made it sing. The songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Eddie, Lamont and Brian) competed with the duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy himself. Plus, the artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder  et al were writing songs. The singers like Robinson, Gaye, Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells and some young group called the Jackson Five, all competed for songs and studio space. But, it was the mutual love for the music, what they built, and each other allowed them to compete without damaging each other’s psyches.

This was evident in the weekly quality control meetings to confirm what was ready for release or where some improvements might be needed. Gordy was only one voice in the meeting and he told of stories where his idea was outvoted. That is telling.

A few takeaways worth noting:

– Motown had a blend of genders, ethnicities and races in its leadership and ranks. Gordy took some flak, but he spoke of this being a natural blend and supportive of what they wanted – a universal following of their music.

– The Motown sound is influenced by Gordy who wanted the song to catch your attention in the first ten seconds or “two bars” as Robinson noted.

– The Supremes were initially called “The No-hit Supremes” after a slow start. But, they became the stars of Motown, once the first hit landed. “Baby, baby, where did I love go….”

– At age 11, little Stevie Wonder wrote a song on stage called “Fingertips” as he was listening to the applause.“Clap your hands just a little bit louder,” he sang. It is incredible to watch, especially as the band behind him realized what was happening.

– It is shown how Marvin Gaye wrote and recorded “What’s going on?” adding the building blocks of conga drums, his second lead vocals, his first lead vocals, a bass by James Jamerson (one of The Funk Brothers), his own chorus, another chorus and so on. It is fascinating.

– We see how Robinson penned “My girl” for The Temptations where he wanted to feature David Ruffin’s voice rather than Eddie Kendricks as there was so much talent in the band and Kendricks should not be the only lead.

– Finally, to see a young Michael Jackson with his four brothers was stunning. As their Motown manager said, there is varying degrees of talent and then there is “genius.” The remaining four Jacksons noted how much pressure they felt to play artists’ songs in front of the artists who made them famous.

Please take a look at this documentary. It is worth the effort as fans of the music and performers. I would add that business people need to see this as well. Building a sustainable, successful organization takes nurturing and equal parts competition and love. These ingredients allow another motto of Gordy’s to flourish – innovate or stagnate. Well said.

 

 

And the band played on

“And the band played on” comes from a powerful protest song called “Ball of Confusion” sung by The Temptations in the late 1960s and written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It was also the movie title for a 1993 movie about the slow action to address AIDs during the 1980s..

“And the band played on” is a metaphor pulled from the band continuing to play as the Titanic sank. It is used unflatteringly to address inaction by leadership to address major problems. The Temptations pleaded for action to address inequality, maltreatment of Blacks, the Vietnam War and so on. The movie noted how little the White House cared until they realized that heterosexual people could get AIDs as well.

As of this writing, a sixteen year old girl named Greta Thunberg is stepping onto our shores to address climate change. This young hero began her quest for action last year and became a catalyst for student strikes pleading for action. When her critics encouraged her to be a kid, she said she would love to, but the adults are not addressing this issue, so she said she had to do so, since, her generation will be left with the unsolved problems.

Yet, while she is here to address these issues to the United Nations and those in Washington, the US president is rolling back restrictions on methane and carbon release, which was announced yesterday. Further, the president blew off a G7 meeting to discuss climate change and the burning forests in the Amazon.

This type of action from the US president is what I feared most from his winning the 2016 election. I feared reversal of action on climate change from the federal level and the environment becoming second fiddle. Yet, I must confess the environmental degradation caused by this president and the EPA under the watch of fossil fuel lobbyists Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler has been worse than I expected.

Inaction by this White House would actually be an improvement. On top of announcing the US’ departure from the Paris Climate Change Accord, the rolling back of Obama’s climate plan requirements, deletion  of climate change data from the EPA websites and the forcing out or redeployment of climate change scientists is harmful to our planet and country. We are behind on acting because of similar actions when the second Bush White House was filled with fossil fuel people like Vice President Dick Cheney, including Cheney making sure fracking companies were not exposed to the requirements of the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Acts (please Google the 2005 Energy Act and Dick Cheney or the Halliburton Loophole).

Fortunately, there are some good things happening in America in spite of this president. Five automakers are ignoring the rollback of increasing MPG requirements under Trump and siding with California’s new requirements. Their thesis is we want younger people to buy our cars, so we better care about the environment because they do. It should be noted that it was announced today that 67% off Republicans between the ages of 18 – 34 believe we must act on climate change. Their leadership can no longer hide on this issue due to fossil fuel funding of their campaigns.

And, other states, cities and companies are addressing climate change with efforts to remove carbon from the air and put less of it there. Wind and solar energy have taken off as costs have declined and other measures like tidal energy, battery storage,  are under way. I wrote recently about these efforts based on the documentary “Ice on Fire.”

The younger generation gets this. And, to be frank, if the Republican Party does not change its paradigm, they may become obsolete. The band can no longer play on. The Titanic is sinking and we must act. I hear criticism about AOC and the Green New Deal. I recognize it is imperfect, but as I tell people, at least it is a plan. We must come together and figure it out. This is far more urgent than politicians are letting on. Please ask them what they plan to do and if they do not answer satisfactorily, do not vote for them. And, please join voices with the young Ms.Thunberg. She should be heeded.

Time passages – tribute to Al Stewart

If you do not know the soothing voice and beautiful guitar playing of Alastair Ian Stewart, please check him out by his shorter name – Al Stewart. Hailing from Britain, Stewart’s most popular songs were overshadowed by more dance oriented songs of the mid-1970s.

Yet, three of his songs did get ample recognition, yet even now people may hear them and say who sang that? “Time passages” is my favorite, but his biggest hit was “Year of the cat.” He also got notoriety for “On the border.” Here are sample lyrics from these three songs:

Time passages

“Well I’m not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last
Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these
Time passages
There’s something back here that you left behind
Oh time passages
Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight”

Year of the cat

“On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat”

On the border

“The fishing boats go out across the evening water,
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border.
The wind whips up the waves so loud,
The ghost moon sails among the clouds,
And turns the rifles into silver,
On the border.”

But, his great songs go much deeper than these three – “Carol,” “Songs on the radio,” and “In Brooklyn,” to name a few.  I have CD of his greatest hits and it offers a terrific soundtrack for a long drive. Per Wikipedia, “Stewart is a key figure in British music and he appears throughout the musical folklore of the revivalist era. He played at the first-ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970, knew Yoko Ono before she met John Lennon, shared a London flat with a young Paul Simon, and hosted at the Les Cousins folk club in London in the 1960s.”

To me, his music is a combination of well crafted lyrics, sung beautifully and accented by great accoustic guitar playing of Stewart and his mate Dave Nachmanoff. The latter is the one adding the terrific color to the songs. One of the more vivid lines Stewart penned is the reference to Peter Lorre strolling suspiciously through the crowds, as it evokes memories of “Casablanca.” Since that is my favorite movie, it is another reason to like Stewart

If you don’t know Al Stewart’s work, give him a listen. If you do, revisit an old friend.

Welcome back – John Sebastian

On Friday, my wife and I had a real treat as we watched John Sebastian perform in a wonderful venue. If his name is not top of mind, he was the lead singer and songwriter for Lovin’ Spoonful. And, one of his hits following the band’s break-up was called “Welcome back.” More on that later.

What made Sebastian’s performance so wonderful extended beyond his many great songs. He told us the backstory behind each song, at times revealing the musical influences, referring to his use of other styles as his “kleptomania.”

And, while his 75 year-old voice was not as velvety as before, his guitar playing was surprisingly superb. He exhibited various styles ranging from Mississippi John Hurt to several folk musicians to a Martha and the Vandellas song and a specific guitar riff called the St. Louis shuffle.

Sebastian performed many of his hits, as well as some of those artists who influenced him. Of his hits, he played (a little vignette he shared is in parentheses) the following:

– Do you believe in magic? (he sped up the notes in Dancin’ in the Street”)

– Daydream (this is one of my favorites and he invited the audience to accentuate it)

– You didn’t have to be so nice (Steve Boone wrote the bass line and Sebastian took it from there saying it took 15 minutes to complete it as Boone did far more than a bass line)

– Summer in the City (he said they played the drum part in the stairwell for a unique sound)

– Darling be home soon (this is a classic love song which was terrific in the small venue)

– Did you ever have to make up your mind? (he wrote the lyrics on a Lucky Strike wrapper in a taxi on the way to record it)

– You’re a big boy now (theme song for a Frances Ford Coppola movie)

– Amy’s Theme (an instrumental he thought up in a Grand Central Station restroom, then forgot it and went back to recall the tune)

– She’s a lady (not the Tom Jones’ one)

– Welcome back (he wrote it overnight to the surprise of the “Welcome back Kotter” TV producers, saying he was one of those students portrayed on the show)

Here is a taste of two song lyrics with the title of each in the first line:

“My darling be home soon
I couldn’t bear to wait an extra minute if you dawdled
My darling be home soon
It’s not just these few hours but I’ve been waiting since I toddled
For the great relief of having you to talk to”

“Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out
Welcome back, to that same old place that you laughed about”

Please do visit or revisit his many songs. Whether they are along with his Spoonful mates – Boone, Zal Yanovsky, Joe Butler and Jerry Yester – or on his own, they are a treat.

Rainy days and Mondays, especially today, get me down

Karen Carpenter sang “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” This weekend was a yet another sad chapter in America’s history. Plus, we learned 31 people died in a ferry capsizing in the Philippines. In California, an eroding cliff collapsed next to the shore killing three. And, Russia and China are coming down hard on protestors. These are signals.

In America, we have decided we cannot do anything to stop mass gun shootings. We have decided the politics are too hard to do the needed things that would help. We could start by acknowledging that we average 100+ gun deaths a day even without the mass shootings. Many of those deaths are suicides. Some of them are accidental shootings of kids who find a gun in the house. And, some of the homicides are due to mental health issues, lack of civil discourse, hate crimes, or drug crimes. The common thread is access to a weapon without better governance.

Yes, we must act on these signals. We must call hate speech on the carpet, especially if it comes from someone who is in a position of leadership. Dog whistle racism and xenophobia are fuel to a fire for some extreme thinkers. The ones who want status quo in gun laws will say “now is not the time” for change to gun governance. Apparently, “never is the time.” The ones who want status quo will say “that change would not solve this instance.” Yet, doing nothing at all is not solving much.

There are things we can do that, in sum, will help make a difference. If it saves a few lives, that is good. I want politicians to get in a room and I want them to check their politics. I do not care who wins and loses a political game, but it is obvious the dead people and their families are losing. It amazes me how little we did after Sandy Hook. We even had a conservative shock jock say for years Sandy Hook was not real. He is on trial for his hateful rhetoric for the damage he has caused to Sandy Hook families and should be.

The Philippines tragedy is terrible, but not getting much play here. It seems we don’t pay attention like we should when the weather sends us signals. Overloading ferries can be OK in calm waters, but it is a disaster when waters are rough, especially after two earlier ferries had issues. I think failing to heed signals causes far too many deaths. Here in the US, we are whistling past the graveyard in preface to the next infrastructure collapse. Around the world, we have signals telling us to plan ahead on eroding seashores, increasing floods with stalled and repetitive storm systems, increasing droughts in other areas and elongated and bigger forest fires. We need to act on these signals.

In Russia and China, the signals are telling us that we must not be like that. Civil protest is more than fine, yet we must emphasize the word civil. Yet, a regime that crushes the spirit of those who question things, is one that is sowing more seeds of discord, not fewer. A regime that squelches and controls the media is not one that wants to hear the truth. I am watching the mini-series called “The Loudest Voice,” about Roger Ailes and his creation of Fox News. He purposefully controlled what and how things were said, that he started believing his own BS.

Truth matters. Facts matter. Diligent preparation in the face of those facts matter. When people ignore problems, white-wash or deny the truth, and squash those who are trying to tell you those things, the future is hamstrung. As I say often, I do not care what people’s politics are, as usually they are a mixed bag like me, conservative on some things, progressive on others. What I do care about is when people ignore or massage the facts to make their tribe win. I a more concerned about the people who die, who struggle, who become infirmed, who are jailed inappropriately, etc. That is what our leaders should be concerned about and not spreading fear, hate and division to win an election.

 

Only the good die young

One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was called “Only the good die young.” It actually was controversial in the Catholic Church, when he sang “you Catholic girls start much too late.” But, taking the title a little differently, there is a long list of very talented performers who left us way to early. The following is by no means a complete list, but illustrates the loss of music never written or sung.

Ritchie Valens died at the age of 17 after the start of a bright future. He had three huge hits under his belt, including a rock-n-roll version of the Mexican song “La Bamba.” Valens’ real name was Ricky Valenueza.

Buddy Holly died at the age of 22 on the same plane crash with Valens and the Big Bopper. This spawned the song “American Pie” by Don McLean when he sang of the “day the music died.” Holly was a meteoric talent and some say would have been bigger than Elvis, primarily because he wrote his own music. Before he died, he had a solid dozen big hits.

The class of age 27 deaths is profound. Jim Morrison of The Doors died at that age. He was the enigmatic leader that wowed the female audience. The Doors had a significant number of hits with very interesting lyrics. Morrison, though, did his health no service with his excessive alcohol and drug use which led to some rocky stage performances.

Jimi Hendrix died at age 27 as well. Hendrix was regarded by many as the greatest rock-n-roll guitarist ever. He matched his unique abilities playing a right handed guitar upside down as a lefty, with lyrics that matched the psychedelic age. He also does the best cover of a Bob Dylan song called “All along the watchtower.”

Janis Joplin was another talent that died at age 27. Her voice was spectacular and she put every pound and inch of her body into belting out her songs. I remember Dick Cavett interviewing her after one of her songs and she was still catching her breath. She was influenced by Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin.

Kurt Cobain also died at age 27. He led a grunge rock movement from the Northwest that was gaining huge footing. It would have been interesting to see where his music went in the future.

Hank Williams died mysteriously at age 29. He was one of the more prolific country song writers, with many of his songs crossing over into more national appeal. If you ever have a couple of hours, watch “The Hank Williams Story,” with George Hamilton playing Williams.

Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at the age of 30. Her voice and style took country music more mainstream. While there is a movie on her career, I love how Beverly D’Angelo played her in “Coal Miners Daugher” about her good friend Loretta Lynn. Her version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” is legendary.

Jim Croce also died in a plan crash at age 30. Croce was a prolific song writer and talent who wrote every day music for the every day person. His wordsmithing and guitar driven music was a classic match. It should be noted the great guitar work was played by Croce and Maury Meuhleisen, who also died in the crash. If you ever get a CD of Croce’s greatest hits, you need to get a package set, as it will need two.

Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas died at age 32. She was the lead voice on most of their biggest hits and her vocal talents could blend with a variety of music. I saw her and legendary crooner Andy Williams sing two different songs in harmony on his show.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, the great blues guitarist, died at the age of 35. The story goes he and Eric Clapton switched places on a helicopter ride from a guitar festival. We would have lost a talent either way. Vaughan still does not get the notoriety he deserves as he could match Hendrix and other blues legends. It should be noted, he gave homage to these legends when he played with them.

Harry Chapin died in a car accident at age 38. He was on his way to a benefit concert. If you are not familiar with his work, he was one of the best storytellers in song. Plus, he would talk with the audience between songs making them live more. People know “Cats in the Cradle,” but do check out “Mr. Tanner” and “A Better Place to Be.”

The final three need no introduction and deserve their own post – John Lennon was killed at the age 40, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 and Marvin Gaye died at age 44. Three of the most legendary talents could have offered so much more.

If I left off someone, please add them in a comment. If you are not familiar with any of these performers, please check them out. You will not be sorry. If you are familiar, please revisit your past. Only the good die young.