Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

We Were Going Down To Yasgur’s Farm. . . .   Leave a comment

August 1, 2019

 

  It was a random concert some fifty years ago, with an audience—almost all strangers but some of those strangers would become and remain friends. To this day. In travel terms, it might as well have been happening in a ‘galaxy far far away’, considering the distance from Milwaukee to Bethel, New York. But I was in the right place at the right time to hear about an amazing concert event and be in a position  to get in my car and drive to the event.

 

     Sitting in the studio at WZMF-FM radio in Milwaukee I would sometimes answer the phones. We were a station with a small staff so we all did a little of everything. In fact, I remember we all had 3rd Class FCC licenses. We needed this basic permit as we were required to take transmitter readings. Test qualifications for the permit: breathing, ability to sign ones name, answer a few questions, and pay the fee.

One morning in July I received a phone call from a potential advertiser. They were putting on a rock concert and thought advertising their event on Milwaukee’s “Original Album Rock Radio Station” would be a good idea. Duh. So I took down the information and by the time I got off the air George, our intrepid ad sales guru, was in the office. George was one of those guys who could sell one-pound boxes of sand to people sitting on a beach. He called the concert promoter, got the information, and in short order (the concert was about a month away) spots were on the air. A lot of spots. It seemed like woodstock_posterevery couple of hours another 60-second commercial aired promoting this concert. On a closer listen to the ads I realized that it was more than a concert. It would be a multi-day rock music festival, and it was taking place ‘out of town’. Still, it sounded great and I’m thinking “I gotta go.”

     More than 30 acts were signed to perform including Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie (Safka), Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald (and the Fish), Santana, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, and Jimi Hendrix. Tickets were priced at $18 advance, $24 at the gate. If you were driving to the show you’d fill your car’s tank with gasoline that cost just 35¢ a gallon. The festival lasted three days and drew about 500,000 people. And while there was no significant security force to mind the masses, the festival was relatively peaceful. It was reported that two people died (insulin killed one and a tractor the other). Two babies were born.  Chaos was part of the mix but so was a sense of humanity and mutual good vibes.

 

     All in attendance will attest to Woodstock delivering an amazing three days of peace, love and great music. August 15, 16, & 17, 1969 branded everyone of an age (and certainly all who attended) as the Woodstock Generation. I know that I felt it then and feel it now. And like most of the people you meet who tell you how great it was to be at Woodstock, most of those people weren’t there. An unscientific fact is that if everyone who says they were at Woodstock were actually at Max Yasgur’s farm that summer, the number attending would have equalled the population of Philadelphia. But in reality it was nearer half a million. The festival was documented with a feature film and multiple soundtrack albums. And my memories of Woodstock are crystal clear. After all, I saw the film and listened to the albums. And truth be told, I was NOT there. (To my credit I’ve never told anyone that I was there. Honest.)

 

     On the surface Woodstock seemed like a very good idea. Create a live music event with every big name in music, advertise it all over the country while still in the glow of the “Summer of Love”, put tickets on sale, and wait for the money to roll in. The festival was an absolute success, except for turning a profit. It wouldn’t be the first time that a successful idea can go awry. After all, it’s been proven that idiots can go bankrupt operating a casino. At least Woodstock had a successful film and series of albums. And an amazing amount of good feelings. So let’s celebrate. Music is in us and we are in music.

 

     I was fortunate enough to have worked with four HITH-remembering-richie-havens-ten-things-you-may-not-know-about-woodstock-Eof the Woodstock performers, promoting and marketing their music: Melanie’s “Gather Me” album. That was in, ah, no, really. . . 1971. (Geeeeez). Three of Joan Baez’s albums in the 1970s including “Diamonds and Rust”); Joe Cocker (including “I Can Stand A Little Rain” in 1974); and Richie Havens (“The End of the Beginning” in 1976.) Richie and I reconnected when I booked him for a sold-out concert performance at Arena Theater in Point Arena in 2007.
My good fortune of working with, listening to, and connecting with Havens, Baez, Cocker and Melanie is cherished. But in reality, we are all connected just by listening. And perhaps there is something to playwright John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”. Or the variations, as in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, “Six Degrees of der Kommissar” or your own life experience. We are all connected. What we do and say and how we live is all connected. And thinking of Woodstock, maybe we all were, in fact, at Max Yasgur’s farm. At least when we’re within those six degrees. Peace and love, man.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

 

NOTE: I met and worked with Henry Diltz 25 years ago on a video project. The above image of Richie Havens is probably one of his. Henry’s been a great photographer and historian for half a century. Thanks Henry. (He’ll be 81 on September 6.)

 

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In The Afterglow Of Listening   Leave a comment

July 1, 2019

In 1968 I was in college and working at the campus FM station. It was there that I came across a new album titled “Gris-gris” by Dr. John, the night tripper. That album was the real introduction of a musical mystery man to the world of popular music. The cover was dark, compelling, irresistible. The title was intriguing. And of course there was the music. At that moment, Dr. John was everything that 1950s parents feared would happen at the DR John 6 gris-gris (1)birth of rock ’n’ roll as music began pushing the envelope. A decade later, many (if not most) young people hearing new music by Jefferson Airplane, The Who, James Brown and others discovered lyrics, genres, styles, rhythms and themes that flew past those earlier fears. And “Gris-gris” was there to give the envelope another push.

When Dr. John was delivered as a baby boy, he was probably already infused with all that New Orleans musical talent. While his persona and music may have taken different roads from first recording to last, his voice and his music were legitimate, compelling and authentic. In those songs from this new “Gris-gris” album a kid from the midwest could hear witchcraft, voodoo, R&B as well as a unique personality. I asked a friend of mine just what was Gris-gris. He told me “it’s a charm. You know, like your sister wears on her bracelet.” Right. My sister? I don’t think so. Well, I found out my friend was right, but by oversimplifying. Gris-gris is a charm. A voodoo charm, a talisman, an amulet, a spell, an incantation believed capable of warding off evil and bringing good luck to me or bad luck to you.

Five years later in 1973 Dr. John actually had a pop hit when the Gris-gris man made the Top-40 charts. “Right Place, Wrong Time” was clever, catchy (things many pop stars eschew in public) but it was a bonafide hit that peaked at #9. And it was also an ear worm. Infectious. If you go years without hearing it, and then it comes on the jukebox, the radio, or an online service, you know it instantly. There is a thread through Dr. John’s career as he recorded and played what pleased him.

In 1996 I was recruited to become part of GRP Records in New York. A terrific musician and composer, Dave Grusin, started the label and while he was no longer the owner (Universal Music purchased GRP in the early 1990s) he continued there as a recording artist. My job was simple. I was to help turn around a label that had become somewhat of a financial basket case. I knew that what lay ahead for me were a few years of 80-hour weeks and a return to a heavy business travel schedule, but the challenge was intriguing. Besides, I’d be working for Tommy LiPuma whom I knew from my first days in the music business when he was part of Blue Thumb Records, and later when Tommy took another turn at producing artists for A&M.

Arriving at GRP, I immersed myself into listening to the current releases and a few that had been released in the year prior to my coming on board. One of the latter albums was so good I began to wonder just why it hadn’t broken through to a wider audience. I sat with Tommy one morning and asked him to give me some background. His response was to assure me he had been supportive of it (he was the label president, after all) but the short answer was “hey man, it was what it was”. I suggested that we could re-market the album, perhaps with some tour dates, etc., but Tommy wanted to just move on. And that was that.

Back at GRP that one specific 1995 album capturing my attention was “Afterglow” by Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John. The album is pure enjoyment—almost enchanting—as DR John 7 51URLTuhI4L (1)Mac creates a mood, drawing music from some great songwriters. The tracks included “I Know What I’ve Got”, “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You”, “I’m Just A Lucky So-And-So”, “Blue Skies” and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”. The songwriters included Louis Jordan, Don Redman, Duke Ellington, Mack David, Irving Berlin, Charles Brown, Johnny Moore, and Doc Pomus. Obviously song selection for the album wasn’t about creating an “all Dr. John collection” (although there are a few Dr. John originals as well). Instead the album is largely a nod to an earlier time.

“Afterglow” is a beautifully crafted late 20th century recording yet the tracks remain true to the ideas of the original songwriters, many of whom were already writing songs a half-century before Dr. John was born. And the studio players did their part: John Clayton, Ray Brown, Jeff Hamilton, Phil Upchurch, Lenny Castro, Larry Bunker, and (I’m certain) many unnamed studio musicians. Credit too goes to Al Schmitt at the board, and Tommy LiPuma’s decision to get the album made.

Dr.-John 5 _color5a-Houlgrave_20100511_112027 (1)I had several conversations with Mac during my years at GRP. One after a show in Europe, another after a show in New York, and one at a business meeting in the city. There were social moments and business moments during those conversations, including a discussion of the recording budget for the followup to “Afterglow”. My recollection is Mac wanted $350,000 and Tommy was offering $150,000. At the time Tommy elected to hold firm to the lower number which, to be fair, I thought was realistic. In the years since, I wonder if we should have given him more, if only to say “thanks” for “Afterglow”.

Mac—Malcolm John Rebennack—died June 6 at the age of 77. In 1985 critic Stephen Holden wrote In the New York Times of a Dr. John performance: “As usual, Dr. John recreated the essence of early New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll – the style of Professor Longhair and Huey (Piano) Smith – in a contemporized [sic] format and with an intensity and zest that transcended mere imitation.”

Mac’s New Orleans’ self was never overwhelmed—intentionally or otherwise. Anytime we hear one of his recordings we hear the true Dr. John. Whether his recordings channeled the “Night Tripper”, moved toward the Blues, displayed his Jazz chops, or was Mac simply being ‘Mac from the Big Easy’, we are at ease. And if you haven’t yet gotten the message, buy, borrow, or download a copy of “Afterglow”. That album—like those good feelings after a pleasurable experience—will stay with you. And if you find the afterglow fading, just listen to the album again.

David Steffen

 

© 2019 David Steffen

Muddy.   Leave a comment

     Milwaukee is not the center of Blues music today. Well it’s never been the center. But when I grew up there I could hear Blues on the college radio station and on a weekend show on local R&B station WAWA. Some local artists were solid R&B performers who achieved enough success to travel regionally and occasionally nationally. My all time favorite local artist was the group Harvey Scales and The Seven Sounds. Scales was not a pure Blues singer, but nevertheless a talented singer, songwriter and performer. Scales died this year at the age of 78. He was born in Arkansas but happily for me grew up in Milwaukee. In his early years he worked a blue-collar day job and played the clubs (and some larger gigs) in the evening. I Harvey S 2019-05-28_19-39-57 (1)remember seeing him on a multi-act show at the old Milwaukee Auditorium.  Scales knew how to attract black and white audiences with his live shows, and his 1967 hit record “Loveitis” only helped bring in more fans. (“Loveitis” is on my list of ‘desert island discs’.)

     When I moved to Chicago I had multiple opportunities to see and hear the Blues, and that’s when I met Bruce Iglauer who was already a man on a mission.  Bruce was perhaps the most passionate music guy I met in those days. He decided to roll the dice and with his own money started Alligator Records. I was lucky enough to be working for the local indie distributor in Chicago in 1971 when Alligator’s first album was released, by Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. Bruce came into the offices and handed each of us a copy. One could easily tell that a lot more than Bruce’s money was invested in Taylor. His heart and soul were there too. It was one more reminder about Chicago’s place in the history of the Blues. At one time or another Alligator released albums by Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks and others.

 

     Last October I wrote about a couple of rising artists, both of whom I happened to find through an ancient and yet dynamic media source: FM.  Elise LeGrow was one of those rising artists. As I wrote in 2018,

 

“. . . KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my brain. The song was ‘You Never Can Tell’, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s.” LeGrow’s album, ‘Playing Chess’ is all about the Chess Brothers—Leonard and Phil Chess—and their eponymous Chicago record label. For her album Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including ‘Over The Mountain’, ‘Rescue Me’, ‘Who Do You Love’, and ‘You Never Can Tell’.”

     The list of people who sang, played, wrote songs, thumbnailproduced records, or otherwise contributed to the success of Chess Records includes, of course, Chuck Berry. But there was also Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Etta James, Fontella Bass, Little Milton, and Muddy Waters. That group offers R&B, Jazz, and Blues. Some (or perhaps many) of those names you know. And if the names don’t immediately ring a bell, when you hear the music you’ll recognize much of the musical history of Chess. And Muddy Waters was part of that history.

     Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in the years just before World War I. (There is a difference of opinion as to whether he was born in 1913 or 1915. No matter.) As many people before and since can attest, growing up in Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century shapes one’s life, and some of those influences were transformed into music. Muddy Waters wouldn’t be the first young man from Mississippi to grind his way through a ‘professional life’ as a musician, delivering that history in his music. His voice had equal parts gravel and pure emotion. And he was often surrounded by some of those same musicians when he recorded or toured. People like Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Elga Edmonds, and others. Influence was a two-way street. In his 1987 autobiography Chuck Berry recalled Muddy Waters touring through St. Louis in 1955.

“Enthralled to be so near one of my idols, I delegated myself to chaperone him around spots of entertainment in East St. Louis. Ike Turner was playing at the Manhattan Club and since he was my local rival for prestige I took Muddy there to show Ike how big I was and who I knew. . . . I took Muddy to my house that night and introduced him to [my wife] Toddy.” Berry’s wife was such a fan she had a picture taken with Muddy Waters
while the bluesman held Berry’s guitar. As I said, the paths of Muddy W EM Cover 2019-05-28_19-35-06these musicians crossed regularly, in the studio and out.
Muddy Waters toured England and performed at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Clearly he was reaching a wider Muddy W EM Inside 2019-05-28_19-35-06 (2)audience, and the 1960s was a decade of crossover music. By the time he released “Electric Mud” in 1968, Waters was known to tried-and-true Blues fans, R&B disc jockeys, and a burgeoning largely white audience listening to “underground FM” radio.  “Electric Mud” was embraced by the new audiences and more reluctantly accepted by his core. Produced and recorded with some of the amazing musicians of Rotary Connection (who, in theory, helped bring along a perceived ‘psychedelic” flavor,) the album included Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love To You” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, Mick Jagger/Keith Richards’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, Water’s own “She’s All Right” and more. The packaging was simultaneously understated and over the top. The basic white cover bore only the title “Electric Mud”. When opened up, the inside of the gatefold jacket contained a single long shot of Waters holding his guitar, wearing sandals, standing in a white robe, with a look topped off (literally) with a freshly-processed ‘do’.

     The sessions included Muddy Waters: vocals, Gene Barge: tenor saxophone, producer, Phil Upchurch: guitars, Roland Faulkner: guitars, Pete Cosey: guitars, Charles Stepney: organ, arranger, producer, Louis Satterfield: Bass guitar, and Morris Jennings: drums.

     Muddy Waters recorded about a dozen studio albums between 1960 and his death in 1983. His gravestone says “McKinley Morganfield, 1915-1983. The Mojo Is Gone. The Master has Won”. Long after the era of Chess Records, we can look back on the evolution of artists like McKinley Morganfield and be thankful they came our way.  And left us their music.

David Steffen

© 2019 David Steffen

Amazing Days   Leave a comment

May 1, 2019

To paraphrase Billy Shears, “it was (almost)forty years ago today.” A band came to the Agora Theater near Cleveland in 1979, and with the luck of the draw, I happened to be there.

 

     Four years after that performance my friend Gil called me up and invited me to lunch. I was a marketing person and he was president of A&M Records (and my boss) so I immediately knew three things: Lunch would be delicious, Gil would be paying, and I would learn something. From my earliest days in the music business and having been taught a few things by a master of promotion, Augie Blume, I was always interested in learning from anyone I worked with or worked for. And that day in 1983 was one of those “holy shit” moments. In a very good way.

 

     The pace of change in recording technology was poised to accelerate in the 1980s, exciting and confounding us all at the same time. But tech didn’t matter that day. We were already accustomed to hearing what a record sounded like in the car. After all, as radio remained the primary driver of new music in the ‘80s, and commuter traffic was just beginning to feel unbearable, generations of music lovers had been trained to listen in the car. The A&M studios even had a car—actually about two-thirds of a 1960s convertible—set up inside the studio building for musicians and producers to listen to their new music while sitting in a car. (The car radio was tied directly to the adjacent studio so you could record, go out to the lobby, sit in the car and listen.)

 

     Gil drove us to the restaurant in West Hollywood but the conversation would come later. The good news, as it turns out, was that he couldn’t wait to put a tape in his cassette player. He turned to me and said, with a proverbial ‘shit eating grin’ on his face, “I’d like your opinion of this”.

 

     From the opening rimshot through the first 16 seconds (about 6-8 bars) the style suggested Gil could have been playing a song from 1962, constructed with a simple four-chord progression. But the quality of the production, the precision of the players and the voice singing the opening line confirmed that this was no 2-track golden oldie. 18 seconds into the tape the voice of Sting confirmed I was listening to a new track by Police. “It was Synchr“Every Breath You Take”, the first track I heard from the forthcoming “Synchronicity” album. Stewart Copeland, Andy Summers, and Sting would not again achieve this level of success as a group. At that moment the trajectory of their recordings had hit their zenith. We all expected future recordings from the trio but this was their real parting shot. And it was a shot heard round the world.

 

     As the playback finished Gil asked, “what do you think?”  My answer was to ask him to play it again. And he did. His next question was simply “Well?”. My thoughts went something like this. The song was musically simple, lyrically dark, and absolutely Police. It’s simplicity made it instantly familiar. As we walked into the restaurant (and having heard only one track) I couldn’t figure out if the single was simply an entree to a spectacular album, or if Police had run out of true creativity. But I knew “Every Breath You Take” was a hit. Gil smiled, agreed, and we proceeded to have lunch. On the way back I asked him about the rest of the album. He only said “Don’t worry. It’s all there.” A few days later I received my own advance cassette of the complete album. The collection of songs reinforced my opinion that this band was hitting on all cylinders.

 

     To their credit, the “Synchroncity” album was not a collection of songs in the vein of “Every Breath You Take”. They covered the Police spectrum. “Synchronicity I” (side 1, cut 1) could have been a track from an early album. It was simultaneously raw and slick. Yet “Synchronicity II” was clearly the band mixing their patented power-playing and power-vocalizing with lyrics that were not part of every day songwriting. In this case the lyrics lamented the worst parts of a white-collar or factory worker’s daily grind, i.e. regularly receiving “a humiliating kick in the crotch”. Or when the lyrics draw a comparison (through recurring passages) of being something (or someone) who ‘crawls from the slime at the bottom of a dark Scottish lach’. More imagery emerged with “crossing picket lines”, and seeing the “factory belching filth” into the air. By the end of the song the employee returns home to his cottage at the shore of the Scottish lake with a realization that it is he who rises from the slime.

 

     Consider next who is actually in control in the song “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. Sting makes references to fringe ideas and characters to make his point. No generic demon will suffice, so he calls on a name from Faust, “Mephistopheles ”. Similarly he evokes the names of sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis from Greek Mythology. The names provide perfect rhythm and mystery and can be interpreted as Sting digging deep into lyricism or trying to prove he’s an intellectual. While it can be read either way, I’d lean to the former.

 

     The tracks “Tea In The Sahara” and “Murder By Numbers” were strong signals as to where Sting’s songwriting was heading, signals borne out with the release of his first solo album “Dream Of The Blue Turtles” in 1985.

 

     The band released a total of five albums: “Outlandos d’Amour (1979); “Reggatta de Blanc” (1980); Zenyatta Mondatta (1981); “Ghost in the Machine” (1982),  and “Synchronicity” (1983). (Yes, I’m ignoring “Brimstone & Treacle”.) They didn’t say it in 1983 but it became apparent that Police, as a band, was history. A gigantic tour delighted fans around the world. There was a moment in September ’83, standing and watching the concert at Hollywood Park in Inglewood (Los Angeles) that I finally had a feel for what it might have been like to see The Beatles at Shea in 1965. Amplification and adoring fans. But it was an event.

 

     For the next year the venues filled with masses of fans, ticket prices helped maximize everyone’s profit (not a bad thing), and we (A&M Records) continued to sell hundreds of thousands, and then millions of albums (the last I heard the “Synchronicity” album sold 8 million in North America). And then, inevitably, the band’s dissolution began. It was one wildly successful artist I was involved with from first album to last. What each of them did later is important, and each found measures of critical and financial success. Forty years after the release of “Outlandos d’Amour”,  there have been many memories. But those “Synchronicity” days were truly amazing days.

 

David Steffen

© 2019 David Steffen

Passing The Baton   Leave a comment

January 1, 2019

The start of a new year is always a demarcation line. It’s the most obvious moment—aside from our birthdays—where each of us knows another year has passed. Carl Reiner was quoted as saying “Each morning when I wake up I check the obituaries. If I don’t see my name I already feel better.” Yes we’re all a little older, but that’s how things work.

I looked at the list of all the “notables” who’ve passed and wonder how each of these famous—or infamous—people have affected, touched, or otherwise changed my life. It’s always surprising to me that I can find a personal connection to many of them. So here are my thoughts on those we lost in 2018.

What did you think about when you heard the name—nothing else, just the name—Stephen Hiillenburg? It didn’t mean anything to me. It turns out he was important to me for the simple(?) fact that he created the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. My daughter Caitie and I—Caitie was about 10 years old at the time—were driving to Indiana (from Connecticut) to visit family. After a long day on the interstates we were entertaining ourselves by watching TV in our motel room, and that was the moment SpongeBob came into our lives. We laughed for a couple of hours and both became huge fans of the underwater hero. Thanks Stephen.

Robin Leach died last year. In some ways he too was a character worth remembering. In the end, almost all of the overstuffed, vacuous, self-important wealthy people he interviewed became laughable, at least to me.

Nancy Wilson MI0001416007.jpg

     On the musical side we lost some greats, both household names and lesser-knowns. Before getting into the music business I had heard South African musician Hugh Masekela’s hit single “Grazing in the Grass”. Little more than a year later I was promoting the Friends of Distinction, an RCA act who did a vocal cover of Masekela’s hit, creating a hit of their own. Years later I met Hugh when he recorded an album with my former boss Herb Alpert. Small world indeed.

Another music icon I had the pleasure of meeting was Charles Neville. I was in New Orleans and at Tipitina’s for a performance by the Neville Brothers. It was 1988 or ’89 and that band of brothers were amazing.

Lorraine Gordon died. She kept the flame of New York’s Village Vanguard alive after the death of her husband Max. I made many stops at the club to see some of the greatest live music acts in a somewhat intimate setting.

Joe Jackson, father of, yes, those Jacksons died in June. I recall meeting Joe in the late 1980s as A&M Records had increasingly amazing success with Janet Jackson. In business meetings or casual settings Joe had the ability to smile and scare the hell out of you simultaneously. Clearly a dysfunctional family at times, but they changed the music business.

Aretha Franklin died. I could only smile when I saw the photographs and video of the line of pink Cadillacs lining up to pay tribute at her funeral in Detroit.

Bluesman Otis Rush, founding member of Jefferson Airplane Marty Balin, jazz great Sonny Fortune all died. As did Morgana King, and Nancy Wilson. I first heard Wilson’s 1964 recording of “How Glad I Am” while in high school. It’s a great record a half-century later.

And ABC’s Keith Jackson died. His voice was one of the most comfortable ways of listening to a sporting event. I noticed the passing of disc jockey Dan Ingram. He was one of those Top-40 radio voices that transcended the music. Ingram was, like Casey Kasem, Larry Lujack, the Real Don Steele, and others who came to us as if from the ether. Cousin Brucie is still with us (on Sirius XM) thank goodness.

     Hollywood gave up some significant names in 2018. Penny Marshall became a successful film director but I will always remember her as Laverne DeFazio on television’s “Laverne & Shirley”. Lyricist Norman Gimbel died. He wrote the lyrics to the “Happy Days” TV show theme music. It’s more likely he’d like us to remember another set of lyrics he wrote: “The Girl from Ipanema”.

 

     Burt Reynolds died. His epitaph should read something like “He did it his way”. Clint Walker died. A classic ‘bigger than life’ actor in many westerns, I remember him a little more for two small things he did. First, he starred in a made-for-TV movie titled “Yuma”. A small screen film but he helped make it memorable. The other thing was his Christmas recording of “Silver Bells”.

Clint dollarkgrhqng0e1fwr7.jpg Yes, Clint Walker sang, and I had the single on my jukebox to prove it. Margot Kidder died. I attended a John Anderson for President fundraiser in Los Angeles in 1980, and ran into a friend who was dating Margot. In typical fashion I didn’t realize who she was.
Steven Bochco gave us “Hill Street Blues”, “LA Law” and more. Taylor 5bc24ef9708ec.image.jpg

Jim Taylor died. He was one of the most formidable running backs in the NFL during the Lombardi years with the Green Bay Packers.

Stan Lee. He single-handedly changed the comic book industry. Carl Kasell died. He spent years at NPR doing the news with absolute professionalism. Then, semi-retired, he became the perfect comedic companion to Peter Sagal on radio’s news quiz “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me”. And Tom Wolfe died. He wrote “The Right Stuff”. That’s all I need to know.

Stephen Hawking died. He outlived and outlasted many others not so severely afflicted as he. And as Penny said to Leonard on “Big Bang Theory”, “He’s that really smart guy, right?” Right!.

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     My Friend Russ Solomon died. He only created Tower Records. I wrote a column a few years ago decrying the fact that Russ was not in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He reinvented music retailing. And others followed.

There were, obviously, many more famous and near-famous deaths in 2018. To those I met, worked with, never met, and worshipped from afar, you touched my life and so many others. Let’s all raise a glass to them.

David Steffen

©2019 David Steffen

Photos from top to bottom: Nancy Wilson; Clint Walker; Jim Taylor; Russ Solomon.

A Rally Sparks A Memory   Leave a comment

March 1, 2019

  I remember the Tuesday morning. As usual, I drove from my home in West Redding, Connecticut, to the Metro-North Commuter train station in Westport. It was my first day of classes as I started grad school at the New School in lower Manhattan. (I transferred to NYU the next semester, but that’s not really germane to this column.)  My Tuesday classes began at 11:00am, so my plan was to catch the 8:50 train to Grand Central Station, catch a subway to Union Square, and then walk to the campus. I parked the car at the Westport Station about 10 minutes early, and sat waiting for my train. As I sat in the car I heard a report about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center. It was 8:46am. Bad, obviously. But some of us remember reading about another crash.

 

     On July 28, 1945, a B-25 Mitchell Bomber got lost in the fog over Manhattan and crashed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 80th floors. Fourteen people died, including 11 in the Empirestate540building and 3 on the plane. Significant damage, as one can imagine, was done to the building but the structural integrity was not compromised and tourists can still ride elevators to the 102nd floor observation deck. Sitting in my car on September 11, 2001, I could convince myself that just like the 1945 crash, the World Trade Center would survive this disaster.
     My train came into Westport and the conversation went through the car. The question we heard as the train left Westport was “Did you hear?” or “What do you think?”. At the next stop in Norwalk, Connecticut, more Manhattan-bound travelers got on the train, and the conversations continued. Somewhere past Norwalk we got the report that another plane had hit one of the towers. It was 9:03am. At the next stop, Stamford, Connecticut, almost everyone—me included—got off the train, crossed over to the other side to head back on the next train.
     When I arrived in Westport I got in my car and headed straight to Waterbury where our daughter Caitie was in school. She was 13 and I decided it would be good for her (and for us) to call it a day.  Classes at the university were all canceled for the week.

     The following week I, once again, caught the 8:50am train for New York, went to classes, and more or less, resumed some normality. What wasn’t normal were the impromptu memorials in Union Square.

USQ

September 11 Archive, Gift of Marisa Palmisano.jpg

Almost everywhere in this very public place there were candles and flowers on the ground, flowers and notes stuck between fenceposts; pictures taped to walls, fences, and lampposts. Union Square had become a church and home to hundreds if not thousands of very personal memorials. As I passed through the candles and alongside the tears, the magnitude of the prior-week’s horror drove even deeper into all of us.

     A couple of months later I ventured to ground zero. By that time a makeshift wooden walkway had been created to enable all of us to quietly walk past and look up into the now empty sky, look down into the hole, or share a glance, touch, hug, smile with the others in the quiet, non-denominational congregation.
     Almost 18 years later I was listening to an interview with comedian-turned talk show host-turned-advocate Jon Stewart. I’ve always liked Stewart, and view him as a rationale, credible voice. And I still do. He left comedy at home. Here was Stewart adding his potent voice to a rally in New York City. Who can, for a moment, rationalize just why there has not been continuous funding for all of the needs of all of the first responders who walked into hell on Tuesday, September 11, 2001? We’ve all gone on with our lives, but every year 9/11 is a potent number for many of us but perhaps it’s been completely ignored by others.
     As reported by many news outlets on February 25, 2019 “More than 17 years after the 9/11 attacks, first responders and their advocates were back at Capitol Hill urging Congress to ensure that a victims’ compensation fund does not run out of money.” Stop there for a moment. Congress had the energy to write a tax cut into law benefitting mostly the wealthy, but they couldn’t find time to secure funding for these “veterans” of that awful day. The website nj.com covered the day, the crisis, and the reality very well. On February 25,
“Members of the New York delegation, joined by first responders, survivors and family members, lamented an announcement by the Justice Department that the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund is running low on money and future payments may be cut by up to 70 percent.”

Comedian Jon Stewart, a longtime advocate for 9/11 responders, called the Feb. 15 announcement by the fund’s special master “unconscionable” and said Congress has a moral obligation to step in . . . .  “This is nonsense. This is theater. You know it and I know it,” Stewart said. “If the American people in their busy lives had any sense that these shenanigans were going on, they would be outraged.”

He and other speakers urged Congress to act quickly to restore the fund and ensure it has enough money to pay benefits for the next 70 years — or as long as victims need it. Obviously we have a problem in Washington D.C. Sometimes it seems as if much of “flyover” country in America may be against money for a city like New York. Or maybe it’s just that it’s 17+ years since the attacks.

     On a personal level, what I didn’t mention earlier is the unique odor that hung over lower Manhattan in the weeks and months after the attacks. I’ve smelled any number of things during my decade in New York, but that odor, at least for me, was unique. It was memorable in the worst possible way. There were human beings helping on that Tuesday morning 17 years ago, more human beings helping and working to reclaim ground zero for years afterwards. In my opinion, if we can debate the need for a wall on our southern border, we can at least bring a debate about victim and first responder’s compensation to the forefront as well. Healthcare in America is a for-profit business. Unfortunately. If we had healthcare for all, perhaps there would be no need for a rally this week. But we did.
     At the very least let’s take care of these people. Take a moment. Let your representatives in Washington know that it is time to act. Act now.  While some of them are still alive.
David Steffen
©2019 David Steffen

Our Need For Music   Leave a comment

October 1, 2018

     Listening and hearing are two different things. Hearing is more about perception, as in some driver’s car horn asserting a right of way in traffic, or a dog barking in the distance; the crowd at a football game or a food vendor hawking the best sandwich this side of anywhere. Listening is entirely different. It’s the idea that you give your awareness to the sound, taking notice, turning your head, paying attention; you begin a journey with comprehension and (hopefully) arrive at enjoyment. The difference between hearing and listening is why I ended up working in the music business for so many years.

     Once heard, a great song, a great recording is not forgotten. It isn’t the ear-worm of a bad (and likely annoying) advertising jingle, but rather an emotional connection to something that connects with and within us. Twenty years ago a group of neuroscientists (in Nature Neuroscience, 1999) posited that

“Music has an extraordinary ability to evoke powerful emotions. This ability is particularly intriguing because, unlike most other stimuli that evoke emotion, such as smell, taste or facial expression, music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.”

     All that being said, I don’t need a neuroscientist to tell me when a great record is playing. My brain (and heart) tell me that in seconds, or even fractions of seconds.

     Art is personal. Accept, for the moment, that radio is always playing to an audience of one. Radio programmers are often taught to think and perform that way: talk on the radio as if you’re speaking to just one person. Whether the station has thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of listeners, the audience is always an audience of one: you, me, her, him. Even when two or three of us are trapped together in a car on California’s roads or highways, most of the time if one member of the group says “did you hear that”, the likely response from the other passengers is “huh? Hear what?” That’s why I love radio. It’s personal.

     Some six weeks ago I was returning to the Mendocino Coast from the San Francisco Bay area. As I got somewhere north of Marin County I pushed the button on my car radio for KRSH, The Krush. It’s a predominantly Americana station situated in the middle of one of the most famous wine-regions in the world: Napa and Sonoma counties. (Hence, KRSH crush, as in grapes.) The midday host was about to begin interviewing a recording artist, singer/songwriter, and as she introduced her guest I wasn’t certain I heard the name, but the interview was worth the listen. At some point she told her audience she wanted to play a cut from the new album by Stan, or Steve, or Stu. I wasn’t certain just what his name was, but when the music started I really didn’t care about his name. The track was “Forgiveness” and for the next 3 1/2 minutes I was all about this amazing song with haunting lyrics.

I got voices in my head
Get me up and out of bed
I’ve been busted and I’ve been burned
My heart is beating but you know it hurts
And I can tell you every name
But that will never change anything
I ain’t saying I’ll forget it
Or their wrongs will ever be right
We’re just talking about forgiveness
And how it gives you back your life.

     So simple. Whatever the hurt, forgive, and that forgiveness will give back to you, perhaps even your life. The bridge in the song reminds us (particularly those of us who’ve been married for more than a few years) that

I know it’s never easy
Being torn apart
Forgive to be forgiven,
It will open up your heart.

     As happens to many of us—I assume, because I know it happens to me—I couldn’t get enough of this song, this recording.  Arriving home in Mendocino County I immediately tried to figure out just who was this guy on the radio. StallSome internet surfing, including a look at the KRSH website and, voila!, I had his name: Stoll Vaughan. Like any music lover bordering-on-groupie, a couple of weeks later I had a phone conversation with Stoll.

     First, it’s pronounced “stall”, not “stole”. (Stoll is a family name.) He’s from Kentucky and now calls Los Angeles home. “Forgiveness” is not his first song, and The Conversation is not his first album. As the saying goes, this project was not his first rodeo. Stoll’s Kentucky origin didn’t surprise me, as all those years having traveled to and through Nashville (not to mention the film project I did with the Bluegrass Music Association some 20+ years ago) immersed me in conversations with the sounds of a rural and cosmopolitan mid-south gentleness. He’s had education at Michigan’s Interlochen Boarding High School—one of the single best possible schools for an arts-oriented teenager. The Conversation was recorded back near Stoll’s home turf, using studios in Indiana and Nashville, with help from players like Duane Betts (son of Allman Brothers alum Dickey Betts), and Devon Allman (son of the late Gregg Allman), producer Carl Broemel and others.

     Stoll’s album has more than one cut, by the way. There are 13 tracks offering a listening experience just under an hour. “Bear Witness” “Weatherman”, “Meet You In The Middle” confirm his authenticity as a solid songwriter. And happily, like I experienced in my days in the music industry, it only takes one track to get someone’s attention, and then, like a good deed done to you, you’re duty-bound to pass it on. We no longer have hundreds of Top-40 radio stations, helping break an artist. Today we have to help music along, by passing the knowledge in conversation, in email, and through social media. If you frequent a bar with live music, let the owner know about your discovery.  I’m passing “Forgiveness” on to you so that you can discover Stoll Vaughan for yourself. While you’re at it, take credit for his success too. Stoll won’t mind and neither will I.

     Before I let you go, I wanted to mention one other artist and album worth listening to. KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my Elise Title CRbrain. The song was “You Never Can Tell”, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s. You may recall that in the storyline, Monsieur and Madame end up getting married, because “you know you never can tell”. The tempo for this version was brought way back, and my friend Fred told us that the vocalist was Elise Legrow.  Who? I hadn’t heard of her either. Pity. Her new album, Playing Chess has nothing to do with the game of chess, but everything to do with the Chess Brothers, as in Leonard and Phil Chess and Chicago-based Chess Records. Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including “Over The Mountain”, “Rescue Me”, “Who Do You Love”, and more.

     Beyond the Playing Chess album (and in particular “You Never Can Tell”) there’s another Legrow track I found; a much older track of hers—2012?—titled “No Good Woman”.

     Remember those neuroscientists I quoted earlier? While I understand their scientific foundation, I have to disagree with one of their conclusions: “. . . music has no obvious intrinsic biological or survival value.” Any rational human being with a pulse knows there is a biological need for music. At the very least, did these geniuses never hear about setting the mood?  And as for survival, the concept of “desert island discs” was created for specific treasured recordings, i.e. music. Those brainiacs may not believe music is necessary for our survival, but I wouldn’t want to get stranded somewhere without my iPod and its 10,000 of my favorite songs.  Besides, if I’m not alone on the island, how will I set the mood?

David Steffen

© 2018 David Steffen
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