Archive for the ‘Popular Music’ Category

Warming Warning, Revisited   Leave a comment

Working in the music industry at the dawn of the 1980s I remember having mixed emotions about the state of popular music. My memory is that the best seller charts were beginning to reflect two concurrent trends.

 

     First, rhythm was more than a backbeat with disco and dance music taking an increasing share of the record-buying audience. Nothing necessarily bad about that but, frankly, A&M wasn’t a cutting edge dance/disco music label. Having ended the ‘70s with breakthroughs by artists like Supertramp and Peter Frampton, our artists tended to be more traditional pop/rock. However, in 1979 A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert came roaring back on the charts with a huge instrumental dance hit record titled “Rise”. The tempo of “Rise” was noticeably slower than disco. Herb told us that he wanted  to “make a dance record, not a disco record.” He defined the difference as much in BPM—beats per minute—as musicality.

 

     The second trend was an influence of more synthesized recordings, many coming from the U.K. Think groups like Culture Club, Thompson Twins or Human League. Added to the evolving style of music was an obvious and open approach to fashion and sexuality. There was a more obvious use of makeup—for male and female performers—and a greater flair in wardrobe and hair. Along with a renewed influence in music, UK/European musicians (many of them with their 1970’s mullet hairstyle) brought their music and fashion to America in the ’80s.

 

     Songwriters have long incorprated social change into songs including issues of war, civil rights, and feminism. For example, there’s Pete Seeger (“Where Have All The Flowers Gone”), Bob Dylan (The Times They Are a’ Changing”), Helen Reddy (I Am Woman”) and Peter Gabriel (“Biko”). And another interesting topic was starting to rise to the consciousness of the public through the news, although not necessarily in song. To be honest, the size of the audience actually hearing this news was almost microscopic compared to the general population.
     A television listing appeared in Britain’s ITV Network’s evening programming on December 8, 1981. Scheduled to follow “Brideshead Revisited” at 9:00pm and the local news at 10:00pm was a program titled “Warming Warning”. Here’s how it was described in the newspaper listing:

 

     “A documentary about the serious effects our polluting of the atmosphere with carbon dioxide will have on the climate. Scientists are worried that at the present rate the Earth will be two degrees warmer by the middle of the next century with disastrous consequences for the polar regions. It is estimated that if the Ross Ice Shelf were to break up it could lead to an ice surge which would raise sea levels by up to twenty feet thus putting two million people, in London alone, at risk.”
     Produced in Britain by (the now defunct) Thames Television, it’s highly unlikely you or anyone you know ever saw “Warming Warning” in 1981.

 

     Most people, understandably, believe “climate change” is a recent topic, perhaps in the lexicon for 10-20 years. And millions continue to deny climate change is real, with many of those believing it’s a hoax.

 

     British journalist and writer Leo Hickman wrote about the documentary in 2017. In part he said that the broadcast of “Warming Warning” in 1981 “was among the earliest occasions—possibly the earliest—anywhere in the world where a major broadcaster aired a documentary dedicated solely to the topic of human-caused climate change. The documentary was broadcast seven years before Dr. James Hansen’s famous ‘it is already happening now’ Senate testimony in 1988, nine years before the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report was published, and 25 years before Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was released. . . .”

 

     A decade after Dr. Hansen’s warning, and almost two decades after “Warming OCT 2019 Gen ProtestWarning” first aired in the U.K., the topic had reached the American congress. That is not to suggest United States senators were sitting around a campfire, arms locked, singing “Kumbaya”. The world was, in fact, talking about climate change and discussing the need to address the issue. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol—so named for having been adopted at a conference in Kyoto, Japan—was an international treaty which extended the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, committing signatory states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

 

     President Bill Clinton never got the United States Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and President George W. Bush had no interest in raising the issue, much less push for ratification. While Clinton failed, in part, due to a minor distraction known as the Clinton Impeachment, Bush could easily have gotten this through the senate had he wished. But, Bush decided to allow the most conservative (i.e., anti-climate change) members of his administration to influence the GOP writ large, and by the time the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act came up for a vote in 2005, it was defeated on a bipartisan basis, 60-38. To be fair, the American government did  not stand alone. We bravely and  boldly stood with Kazakhstan; the only two nations to ignore the Kyoto Accord and formally deny Climate Change.
     By the time President Obama had secured a second term, maybe people believed the United States could now join the world in an effort to fight climate change. The new opportunity was for America to be a party to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate. President Obama committed the U.S. to joining almost 200 other nations of the world and work toward change. Obama’s good intentions—again, a treaty that was never ratified—was a casualty of the 2016 presidential election. It took the current occupant of the Oval Office less than six months to decide that America would, indeed, withdraw from the Paris Accord. And here we are.
     This past week an estimated 4 million people marched to draw attention to climate change as part of the September 2019 Climate Strike. And one can assume the estimate of 4 million is all about big cities and ignores the dozens, hundreds or even thousands of OCT 2019 Gualala Protestsmall towns and rural enclaves where people also stood for the Climate Strike. 16-year old Greta Thunberg’s dramatic call to action (and the Swedish teen’s authentic passion) were virtually impossible to dismiss. Some did, but Thunberg spoke for many. (Watch her on YouTube).

 

And on a more personal note, the Climate Strike was clearly front and center on Mendocino’s south coast. As I walked and talked with fellow climate-strikers, and with representatives of organizations, I was struck by how many of my friends and neighbors were on the green. Smiles were everywhere. This wasn’t a group of angry people. But that is not to say they aren’t serious, concerned or committed. They are. And we should be too. I live on the coast. I see the Pacific Ocean every day. You can’t live in Gualala, Sea Ranch, Anchor Bay, Point Arena, Manchester, Elk, Stewart’s Point or in any other town and not be thinking about our ocean, our planet, and climate change. I’m happy we’re aware, active, and thinking. But we need more. The world needs to seize the moment.
David Steffen
© 2019 David Steffen
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Where Are The Muses, Where Are The Voices   Leave a comment

September 1, 2019

 

I was talking to a friend this week (yes,I have friends. Well, at least one. I’m pretty sure.) Our coffee conversations—usually an hour and a half or so—often cover a variety of topics including coastal stuff, travel, music, environment, movies, weather, politics and more. Back at home a little while later it got me thinking about writing.

I’ve been working to complete my second book, a book I started in 2003, put aside while I finished another book and then left it in a safe place (a digital file and a well-worn hard copy on my desk) to mature like a fine wine. Spoiler alert. It turns out that hard copies and digital files left on or in the desk don’t improve over time.

I’m not certain if I expected one of the muses to stop by and complete my second book for me, magically of course with a wave of her muse-powers, or if she would drop herself into my old brain and voila, a completed book. While not everyone assumes all muses are female (or even real), I know they are. Both. Real and female. Historians tend to agree that “the earliest known records of the Nine Muses tells us they are from the homeland of Hesiod”. The nine muses, in alphabetical order (in English, not Greek) are Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania. Here are their claims to fame.

 

Calliope (“The One with a Beautiful Voice”) is the Muse of Epic Poetry.
Clio (“The Proclaimer”) is the Muse of History.
Erato (“The Lovely One”) is the Muse of Lyric Poetry.
Euterpe (“She Who Pleases”), is the Muse of Flute-playing.
Melpomene (“She Who Sings”) is the Muse of Tragedy.
Polyhymnia (She of the Many Hymns”) is the Muse of Hymns and sacred poetry.
Terpsichore (“The One Delighting in the Dance”), is the Muse of Choral Lyric and Dancing.
Thalia (“The Cheerful One”) is the Muse of Comedy.
Urania (“The Heavenly One”) is the Muse of Astronomy.

 

As if I had a choice I wondered which muse would pick up my unfinished book and help me complete it. Could I count on Calliope? Nah. I’m not a poet. Even starting with a brilliant classic like “Roses are red, Violets are blue”, I got nothing. How about Clio? Maybe she’s for me, since she’s into history. Erato favored playing the lyre and lyric poetry. I’ve played guitar since I was 12. My telecaster is not a lyre so I’ll just say no. Euterpe is all about flute playing. Well, I did borrow my sister’s flute—she was 13, I was 11 and when I put my lower lip to the lip-plate and blew, the sound that came out of the instrument was akin to stepping on the tail of a large angry feral Siamese cat with asthma. Melpomene is the muse of tragedy. Let me ask, who would want to be the muse of tragedy? And who would want assistance in being a tragic figure? Although in these trying times, perhaps she’s working full time in politics. Polyhymnia favors hymns and mime. I admit I sang a lot of hymns growing up in Milwaukee but mime? It ain’t me. Terpsichore favors choral dancing and song. I can sing but if you’ve seen me dance, well, let’s just say it has all the beauty of watching Elaine Benes dancing on Seinfeld. I’ve always been credited with having a good sense of humor, so perhaps Thalia, the muse of comedy and light verse could help me out. Urania, is predictably, about astronomy. It’s clear. No help from her. I’ll keep an eye out for Clio.

Three

This week I received an email from an online group that I’m a part of—along with one or two million others—who follow the music of Lana Del Rey. Lana—I call her Lana, because, well, that’s her name. Actually her name is Elizabeth but she gave herself a stage name and Elizabeth Grant became Lana Del Rey. Never mind.

I wrote about Lana in February 2016 when she first got my attention. I found her music compelling then, and she continues to successfully expand her repertoire and audience. Her vocal style has been described as Dugazon—Mezzo-soprano without the puffery—and her recordings are filled with high production values, big atmospherics. Think orchestral arrangements of ballads for a pop singer with a punk attitude. Never mind. The point is they are big, rich, emotionally-charged recordings.

My go-to track to get people to try a dose of Lana is “Born To Die” which is easily found on YouTube. I suggest listening to it BEFORE you watch the official video so that you won’t miss the music and the lyrics instead of focusing on the visuals. Believe me, it’s easy to find yourself staring at Lana, looking beautiful in her drop-dead gorgeous white dress, seated on a throne in the opulent Gallery of Diana at the 17th century Palace of Fontainebleau near Paris, flanked by two live Bengal tigers. . . . Oh, nevermind, too late.

 

Let’s get to the new music. I received the aforementioned email to announce that Ms. Del Rey just released a new track titled “Looking for America”. The lyrics include,

Took a trip to San Francisco
All our friends said we would jive
Didn’t work, so I left for Fresno
It was quite a scenic drive
Pulled over to watch the children in the park
We used to only worry for them after dark
I’m still looking for my own version of America
One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly
No bombs in the sky, only fireworks when you and I collide

 

It’s a different sort of song for Del Rey. It’s actually a protest song, about guns, violence and lost innocence in an increasingly violent America. You may have to listen closely to appreciate the protest. Clearly it was a whole lot easier decades ago to recognize a protest song, as when Barry McGuire sang “Eve of Destruction”, or Bob Dylan sang “The Times They are a’Changing” or when Creedence Clearwater’s John Fogerty sang “Fortunate Son”.

Del Rey’s lyrics are, indeed, reflective of current events. Points of reference: El Paso, Texas, Saturday, August 3, and Dayton, Ohio, Sunday, August 4. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica wrote about “Looking for America” in the paper’s August 9 edition. “[The song was] Written on Monday, teased with a snippet on Instagram that same day, and then released in full on Friday, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Looking for America’ is a rapid-response protest song—following a slew of mass shootings—from an artist whose tortured relationship to an idealized America has always been central to her persona.”

 

All of this got me wondering just what is the current state of protest songs in America? Certainly there’s plenty of material out there to inspire writers (or incense them). The message of “Looking for America” is clearly not ‘in your face’ but then again at least Lana’s millions of fans are reminded that the times are, in fact, a-changing. We still need our writers, musicians and muses to give us a push in the right direction. Music is not simply about the atmospherics. It’s also about the times we live. I’m wondering just where is our musical outrage? Where are our voices? Where are our muses?

 

David Steffen

 

© 2019 David Steffen

Note: L-R: Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Lana Del Rey.

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.)

 

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.

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     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.

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