The Saga of the Castrati

Operatic Castrati

Castrati were the rock stars of their time.

Learn the astonishing (and slightly nauseating) story of the castrati, those singers who traded their plumbing for their pipes, in this episode of NOTES.

The Case of the 250 Hidden Rock Band Names

The following originally appeared in the GRAND JUNCTION FREE PRESS. How many of the 250 hidden band names can you uncover?




It was a typical morning in my detective office in Chicago.

I was sitting at my desk which — with only a notepad, a pen and a couple coasters sitting on it — was an oasis in the otherwise cluttered room. As always, I was wearing my morning jacket, a gray fedora and a loose, slipknot necktie. And just like every day at this time, I was sipping my coffee, which I take black with just a lovin’ spoonful of sugar. I had the TV on, set to some news station where the talking heads were chattering about some war or another. Outside, a garbage truck was raising a holy clatter — I swear as loud as a U2, some B-52s and some other kinda jet put together. I peeked out my office window. A trio of skid row rats were scattering in widespread panic, leaving one little, modest mouse to scurry in the gutter. Although it was still early, the street was packed with the residents of nearby brownstones and other village people headed for their offices near Linkin Park, their small faces set stoically. In the alley across the street, a gang of four backstreet boys were pitching pennies, while the waitresses at the sad cafe down the boulevard got busy.

That’s when she walked in.

She was a gorgeous platinum blonde, dressed to the nines. The bangles on her gown were those of a queen, arranged in black and white stripes, and a single golden earring dangled from one lovely lobe. Only her wedding ring seemed cheap, an average white band of gold. She was one of those pretty things who, when they walk in the room, the air supply goes flying out in a rush. She was definitely not one of your average New York dolls, no cheap trick, but sexier than all those barenaked ladies in the men’s magazines that filled the corner newsstand.

“I’m the girl of your dreams,” she said.

“The who?” I stammered.

“My name is Alice. Alice Cooper. And I need your help.”

“No doubt. Ok go ahead, Blondie.”

She sat down across from me. “I’m from Barcelona.”

“Oh. A foreigner. Judas Priest, it’s quite a journey to Chicago from Barcelona.”

She fixed me with those big eyes, and it suddenly occurred to me that those lips needed a kiss. “I want you to find the killers of my husband.”

So it was a murder case. I couldn’t help but think the beautiful Mrs. Cooper might be taking me for a ride. Everything about this smelled of trouble — everything but the girl, that is.

See answers for Chapter 1!




It had been weeks since Mrs. Cooper had hired me to find the rascals who had killed her loverboy and husband, Floyd, but even though I put blood, sweat and tears into it, the investigation was in dire straits. I still couldn’t be sure Alice wasn’t setting me up for the fall. She had the knack for making my heart pump double-time with those sublime eyes of hers. I wanted to have blind faith in her, but I had learned years earlier to rely on faith no more. Anyway, as long as she was paying, I would do my job — and she kept forking over the green day after day. “I want vengeance for my love,” she told me.

“Don’t worry, doll. Keep paying, and he’ll be avenged sevenfold.” But inside, I wasn’t so sure.

I had personally boarded a train and traveled from Boston to Kansas looking for clues, but America is a big country and I came up empty-handed. Eventually, I had to give up and head east. I had sent a wire to Interpol, and they had men at work searching Europe and Japan. For a moment, we thought we’d picked up a lead in Berlin, but it turned out to be a bust and the Interpol agents had to eat humble pie. I even dialed Jackson 5-2765, the number of my friend, Spanky O’Toole. Spanky ran a small detective agency with offices in New York and Canada. His brother, Slade, answered the phone. I filled him in on the case, and he said, “Don’t worry. Spanky and our gang will scour all of Montreal. It’ll be cake!” But they, too, wound up with zip.

Meanwhile, back home, we had learned that the late Mr. Cooper had a thing for silk, satin and other chic materials, especially in shades of pink. He was known to frequent the black market textile shops that operated out of the basements in the garment district. The police, of course, had put the squeeze on the stooges who sold velvet underground, but no one could remember seeing Mr. Cooper the day he died. No one, that is, except for one daft punk named Ezra McGillicuddy. My buddy, Lou Beyond, who was a captain on the force, let me sit in when they interviewed the kid.

Ezra told Lou, “Yes, Captain Beyond, I remember him. What a player! We used to call him Pink Floyd. That day, he put in a new order for some taffeta. I tried to show him some fine paper lace, but he wasn’t interested. He wasn’t alone, either. He was with that drunk old physician — what’s his name? Dr. Robert. That’s it.”

A-ha! I turned to Lou. “Put a warrant out on Dr. Robert. I’ve seen that geezer downtown. I’ll look for him there.”

Lou nodded. “Roger wilco.” As he ran through the doors, toward the cars parked outside, I smiled. This Dr. Robert was likely to be our best lead yet, certainly better than Ezra.

See answers for Chapter 2!




I hadn’t heard from Alice in a couple days. Her gorgeous face had lit sparks inside me, and finding her husband’s murderer had become personal. The night before, I dreamed she had been kidnapped, and now I couldn’t get the image of Alice in chains out of my head.

I had a hard time finding the Aviary, the bar where I expected to find Dr. Charles Roberts, the last man to have seen Floyd Cooper alive. I was running low on fuel, and thought I might have to turn back, but a street vendor told me to take Shakin’ Street past Marcy Playground, ‘til I reached the power station, then go west. By the time I pulled up in front of the Aviary, it looked quiet. There was just an old REO Speedwagon parked outside, and a few of the drifters and the misfits you expect to see in that part of town.

The Aviary was owned by Belle and Sebastian Smith, whom I had known for years, and in addition to offeriing liquor and music, they served food as well, like hot tuna seasoned with red hot chili peppers. (Belle also made the jam that I loved to eat right off the spoon. She’d mash the raspberries through a sieve to remove the seeds, then combine them with the cranberries.) The Smiths opened the Aviary ten years after the arcade fire that had razed their previous restaurant. After the fire, the neighborhood was never the same, and the clientele of the Aviary tended to be bad company.

Inside, it was a crowded house. They called it the Aviary because the place was decorated with paintings and statues of birds. All kinds of birds. The coat check girl was nestled between a pair of swans, a budgie perched over the fire exit, and the eagles hanging from the rafters spun lazily over the what seemed like 10,000 maniacs packing the dance floor. A flock of seagulls was painted in shades of deep purple and simply red above the bar where men without hats nursed their everclear. I was counting crows on the liquor shelf when a mountain of a man stepped in front of me. It was “Zeppelin” McGrew, the Aviary bouncer. “Sorry, bub. Your kind ain’t wanted here,” he muttered.

Wham! I hit him with an upper cut to the chin. Big guys like him are all the same; they might be giants, but they crumple like pixies. I picked him up and led Zeppelin to the bar, where he steeled himself. “It’s no use, Mr. Mister!” The big cracker was so dazed, he was repeating himself. “I’ll never talk talk,” he said. I picked up a gin and tonic sitting on the bar and splashed it in his face. “Hey! You got me wet wet wet!”

“That’s the cure for your laryngitis,” I said. “Now talk!”

“Look, Robert is long gone. You need to speak to them!” His thumb was stabbing westward at the stage in the back of the bar. “You need to speak to the band!”

See answers for Chapter 3!




Before heading backstage, I thought it would be a good idea to interview more of the animals in the bar. It was no little feat getting information out of those gorillaz. Most of the toadies I questioned stared at me like I was trying to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge, but a few confirmed that if I was going to find any information on who killed Floyd Cooper, it would be from the band, which was an all-female group that I knew very well indeed.

Meanwhile, my questioning had raised the alarm among the underworld types in the crowd, and there was a murmured frenzy erupting on the dance floor. I had managed to create panic at the disco, a real quiet riot. I slipped from the fray and headed for the wings of the band stage.

It was dark back there, but I kept moving forward, guided by voices from up ahead. I turned a corner and found a trio of dumb-looking woodworkers puffing on cigars under a sign that read, “NO SMOKING — BY ORDER OF MGMT.”

“Haulin’ ash?” I cracked, but they just stared at me like the zombies they were, thereby breaking Benjamin Franklin’s rule that simple minds are easily amused. “Sorry if I disturbed you. Where do I find the band?” I asked. One of the carpenters lifted his tool and pointed to a dressing room 3 doors down.

I knocked on the door. No answer. I could hear the hum of a television set, so I knew someone was there. I decided to count five, then opened the door.

It was hot, at least 98 degrees, in the room, which was a real hole, and the paint job was painful. The walls were aqua, trimmed in moody blues, and the clash of colors made me wince. The band must have hated it too, because one wall had been covered by a black flag with a rainbow in the middle, affixed to the wall by nine inch nails.

The five girls in the band were scattered about the room. Charlotte, the lead singer, was standing at an ironing board, apparently trying to iron butterfly decals onto a T-shirt. She looked up as I entered. “Well, I’ll be. Hey girls! Guess who just walked in!”

Molly, the guitarist, was sitting on a suede couch against the back wall, sucking on Lemonheads and reading about the latest Hollywood scandal in the new edition of some gossip magazine. She was gorgeous, with skin like peaches and cream, a rose tattoo on her arm, and long blonde tresses — although, on close inspection, the roots of her hair suggested that might have come from a bottle. Molly had a reputation for being loose. Word on the street was she wasn’t just a tramp, she was a supertramp. But I knew Molly wasn’t naughty by nature, but instead a survivor. She had been born Molly Borden and had taken the name of Molly Hatchet when she joined the band, but she changed it after an unfortunate incident involving her sister, Lizzy Borden, and an axe. “This better be good Charlotte,” she muttered, then looked up to see me. Her visage softened.

See answers for Chapter 4!



The last few weeks had been a blur. I couldn’t calculate the time that had passed in toto since I’d been hired by Mrs. Cooper. The kinks in this case had become pretty tangled — but now, as I stood in the dressing room, it began to dawn on me that I could be near the solution. With lead singer Charlotte at the ironing board and guitarist Molly on the couch, I looked at the three other girls present.

Jane and Cleo Thompson, the identical twins from Alabama who played bass and keyboards, were eating at a small table. The platters of food in front of the the Thompson twins were full, and Jane was gulping down black eyed peas while Cleo nursed a mug of hot chocolate like the sweet beverage was ambrosia. I knew these two Dixie chicks well. They were the offspring of an old girlfriend named Eve. I had promised Eve 6 years earlier, back in the days of the Bush administration, that I would watch out for them. When I heard Jane (the prodigy of the family) had developed a drug problem, I wrote dozens of letters to Cleo in an attempt to find out how big the problem was. It turned out Jane’s addiction was serious; like a lot of kids, she had sought nirvana in the crazy horse, pot and coke that destroyed so many lives. Those drugs had become her muse. She worshipped them — and I knew well that was one bad religion. Her days of mindless self indulgence eventually left her teetering on the brink of madness. With some TLC from a rehab center sponsored by the church in her hometown, she got healthier and the temptations to indulge subsided. Now, her bright eyes told me she was still clean.

I turned to the last girl in the room, who was absently slapping a rhythm on the bongos. I didn’t recognize her. I thought at first she was one of the replacements the band used when their regular drummer had the cramps, but she didn’t look much like a drummer at all. She was dressed like a deerhunter, with a plaid jacket instead of the cardigans the other girls wore, and a belly the size of a mastodon. She had short, stubby arms like a T. Rex, and a face that could give you the hives. “Bow wow wow,” I thought. “Call the pet shop boys, ‘cause this twisted sister is a real dog.” But then I realized — she wasn’t a girl at all! It was Floyd Cooper — he hadn’t been murdered! I realized he must have faked his death to hide his involvement with the textiles black market.

He knew he was made and started to bolt, but I jumped across the room and punched him hard. He howled like a screeching weasel and tried to kick me in the shins. “Oh, one of those violent femmes, huh?” I hit him again. “Take that!” I yelled. “You’re comin’ with me, Cooper — dead or alive!”

As I led him outside, past a group of stray cats and into the traffic on the avenue, I sneered at him. “Your actions hit your wife like a nuclear bomb, Cooper, and it’s time you faced the fallout boy.”

See answers for Chapter 5!


Untold Tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers, Pt. 4: Thurl Ravenscroft, Pt. 2

Thurl Ravenscroft

Thurl Ravenscroft was also a Grim, Grinning Ghost.

The story of the greatest bass voice in pop music history continues, as we wrap up our series on the untold tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers by finishing the Thurl Ravenscroft story, in this episode of NOTES.

Making Nice… Or Not

Sometimes, when you talk about pop music, you just have to get personal. Today, I wanted to discuss a couple songs about a subject that doesn’t get a lot of play in music these days: Forgiveness.

It’s a topic you hear a lot about in religious circles, and so it probably comes as no surprise that there are some gospel and Christian pop songs on the subject. But amongst secular songs, you could no doubt count on your fingers the number of paeans to pardon.

And yet… it’s the rare bird who can live his or her whole life through without learning first-hand something about forgiveness. And usually, the lesson is a painful one. Most of us, at some point, reach a juncture where we learn we must forgive. Whether we come to this realization as a result of our religious beliefs, or because we eventually understand that the person who can’t forgive is the person who can’t move on, learning to forgive seems like a necessary landmark on the journey to complete and healthy personhood.

Craven got to thinking about this as a result of a strange coincidence recently. While I was driving in my car, Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly’s “I’ll forgive But I Won’t Forget” came up in a random playlist, and it reminded me what an amazing songwriter Kelly is, finding universal truths in the specifics of a particular friendship in which an old buddy slept with the singer’s girlfriend. It also reminded me of the many friends, lovers and acquaintances who have let me down over the years — as well as the many times I let them down as well. As I drove down the parkway, I was flooded by memories of how I found peace by letting go of pain, and how I found warmth in the grace of others.

But then something happened to remind me that forgiveness does not always come so easy. As a youngster, on too many occasions, I watched, wide-eyed and terrified, as my biological father beat my mother senseless. His attacks were as frequent as they were violent. Once, I saw him tear our front door to splinters. Another time, I skittered in a small boy’s panic when he came crashing out of a closet where he had lain in ambush for hours. I recall vividly the day he kidnapped my brother and me and was finally taken into custody by a half-dozen cops who surrounded him with their guns drawn and fixed upon his chest.

My mother, thankfully, divorced him, and we spent the next few decades healing in a life which became stable and placid. But of course, as any of the many souls who emerge from similar circumstances know, the psychological scars remain long after the physical have disappeared. When, years later, my father returned to my life, and sought to regain a relationship with his sons, I — as an imperfect man who found his own redemption not once, but several times — was willing to give him a chance. But in order to forgive my father, I needed one thing from him: Contriteness. When my father, all these years later, continued to blame the violence with which he had stained my family’s history on my mother’s behavior as a young wife, I told him the father-son relationship he sought remained impossible. And this week, two years after my father died, as I drove on the parkway with Paul Kelly’s song of forgiveness having just finished, another song came up in the mix. It was the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice.” As Natalie Maines sang, “They say time heals everything, but I’m still waiting,” I knew exactly what she meant.

Untold Tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers, Pt. 3: Thurl Ravenscroft, Pt. 1

Marnie Nixon

For years, Thurl Ravenscroft was the only voice of Tony the Tiger for Kellogg’s Cereals.

If you needed a booming bass, there was one name that sprang to mind in the latter half of the 20th Century. We begin a look back at the amazing vocal career of Thurl Ravenscroft, in this episode of NOTES.

The Music of God and the Music of the Devil

In some ways, it’s hard to imagine two genres more diametrically opposed than gospel music and the blues.

Gospel is meant to be the sound of salvation, and much of gospel music specifically finds that salvation in a crowd. There have been many successful solo gospel artists, but it is a genre more characterized by groups than individuals. Think harmonies. Think call-and-response. Think rapture and joy. Think the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Staple Singers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Sensational Nightingales and the Wynan Family.

Blues, on the other hand, is a music for loners. It’s the sound of a lonely voice as far from salvation as a soul can get. It should surprise no one that the greatest legend to emerge from the field of the blues is the story of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the chance to be a great guitarist.

And yet, and yet…

The overlap between gospel and the blues is great. And nowhere did that overlap express itself more than in the work of musicologist John Work III.

Work’s father, as we learned last week, had helped re-establish gospel music as an honorable genre during the early part of the 20th century, through his work at Fisk University, the black school which was formed just months after the end of the Civil War. When John Work III came along, 18 months after the dawn of the 20th century, no one could know that his career as a composer, archivist and musical scholar would eclipse that of his father a few decades later.

The younger Work got his start as a composer while he was still in his teens. He went to Fisk High School and then Fisk University, achieving his degree in 1923. After a short stint at the New York school which would eventually become Julliard, he returned to Fisk — this time as a teacher and choral director. But he continued to study in New York during the summers, and eventually secured an M.A. from Columbia University. Given his father’s work preserving the black gospel music of American slaves, it seems natural that his thesis was on “American Negro Songs and Spirituals.” He also continued to compose, including many gospel spirituals.

During the 1940s, Work came together with another musical folklorist, Alan Lomax, to chronicle the music of Coahoma County, Mississippi, and was the man who led Lomax to essential blues pioneers like Son House. It was also Work who discovered an itinerant musician named McKinley Morganfield, then playing with an outfit called the Sons Sims Four. McKinley Morganfield would eventually change his name to Muddy Waters and become one of the most important figures in establishing the genre of the blues.

Whether helping to compose important gospel songs like “Go Tell It On the Mountain, or recording blues giants like Waters and House and gospel greats like the Fairfield Four, John Work III’s work is a divine contribution to the history of American music. That his name isn’t better known to lovers of gospel and the blues is devilishly wrong.

Untold Tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers, Pt. 2

Marnie Nixon

Marnie Nixon — queen of the ghost singers.

She had one of the most recognizable voices in Hollywood… but very few knew her name. We continue our exploration of the untold tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers by examining the career of Marnie Nixon, queen of the ghost singers, in this episode of NOTES.

The Jubilee Tradition

When we wish to stress the untarnished accuracy of a statement, we sometimes say, “It’s the gospel truth.”  But just as there are differences between the books of the Bible we know as the Gospels, so too there have been different styles and strains of the musical genre which takes its name from them.  One such style dear to Craven’s heart is the jubilee quartet style of gospel.  For the fact that we can enjoy jubilee style gospel today — or, for that matter, that we even have a long gospel tradition in this country at all — we owe a great debt to a father and son whose names are not well-remembered today, but whose legacy lives on every time a gospel hymn is sung.

Gospel music as we know it today emerged in the 18th century in New England, among the congregation of the Reverend Jonathan Edwards, a theologian well-known in his time as the leader of a religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Edwards was not a forceful preacher, but he found the traditional long-meter hymns of the Protestant tradition too slow and staid for his church, and implemented faster rhythms into their songs.  Eventually, these arrangements made their way south, where they were incorporated by African-American slaves into that shackled population’s folk music.

The gospel of southern slaves served two purposes — it offered praise to God, but it also acted as a sub rosa, coded blueprint for escape to freedom.  Well-known hymns like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water” were thinly veiled “instruction manuals” for slaves interested in running to the north, toward “Canaan” (Canada) by way of the the underground railroad of “Moses” (Harriet Tubman).

Following the Emancipation, blacks considered gospel a shameful reminder of their past slavery.  Gospel might never have been rekindled as an important American musical form were it not for a man named John Work II.  Work was a student at the black school known as Fisk University in 1891.  Fisk had, years earlier, fostered a black choral group which toured the United States and Europe, singing both opera and gospel.  But by the time Work came to the university, the choir had been dissolved.  During the previous decades, black gospel had been stolen and parodied by white minstrel performers, to the point that serious-minded black musicians considered the form demeaning.

Work, unlike many of his peers, saw gospel as an important part of the black American heritage, and was responsible for the formation of a smaller gospel group, the so-called Fisk Jubilee Quartet, which went on to record more than 40 songs in the early days of the 20th century.  The Fisk Jubilee Quartet was incredibly influential.  Many jubilee quartets sprang up in its wake.  Work himself was eventually drummed out of Fisk University by an administration embarrassed by the music he pioneered.  But his son would go on to not only further gospel music in America, but also make hugely important contributions to the history of the blues.  We’ll learn the little-told story of John Work III next week — how he helped discover some of the best-known musicians of our time, and how he helped keep alive the joyous noise.

Untold Tales of the Randy Van Horne Singers, Pt. 1

Magilla Gorilla

The Randy Van Horne Singers were the missing link between Magilla Gorilla and Richard Nixon.

They were mostly anonymous… but amidst their ranks were some of the greatest voices of the 20th Century. We learn more about the Randy Van Horne Singers, in this episode of NOTES.

Instruction Manual for Naming Your Rock Band

Congratulations on your new rock band! We trust you will derive great enjoyment from the many nights of playing your heart-felt original songs while being verbally abused by besotted simians yelling “Freebird!” in dim-lit low-life dives which lie ahead of you. But before you can climb aboard your manager’s Honda CR-V for 200 consecutive days of dashing from one rock n’ roll armpit to another, you must first: NAME YOUR BAND.

This is sometimes no easy task! Therefore, we offer this clear and easy-to-follow instruction manual to help with the arduous task of NAMING YOUR ROCK BAND.

Of course, the easiest way to name your band is to:


This method worked great for ’80s metal bands like Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Winger, Dokken and countless others, and it can work for you! Unless your name is Deutschendorf.


If you’re that rare rock musician who, you know, actually reads, you can often glean a great band name from the pages of your favorite book — especially if that book is a nihilistic avant-garde sci-fi novel! ’80s synth band Heaven 17 took their name from a fictitious rock group mentioned in Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Progressive rock pioneers the Soft Machine derived their moniker from the title of William Burroughs’ book of the previous year, and Steely Dan also turned to Burroughs for their name, naming themselves after a sex toy mentioned in NAKED LUNCH. Sometimes it’s enough to simply sound literary — for instance, you might think Aerosmith named themselves after the phonetically similar ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis, but such was not the case. Likewise, none of the members of Steppenwolf had ever read Herman Hesse’s 1927 novel by that name when they adopted their eponym. If reading gives you a headache, movies can offer a rich depository of potential band names as well. Duran Duran took their name from the ’60s sci-fi sex romp, BARBARELLA. And the name of modern alternative act Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s is a reference to Wes Anderson’s dry 2001 comedy, THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS.

The world of rock n’ roll would be a poorer — if perhaps more legible — place were it not for the many misspelled band names. Rock’s most famous spelling wee-honk is the Beatles, but later bands would make the lads from Liverpool look like spelling bee champs, C-H-A-M-P-S, champs. Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, Ratt, Korn, Phish and Puddle of Mudd are just a few of the orthographically challenged greats.


Even the most mundane rock name will look better with an umlaut, as Blue Öyster Cult, Queensrÿche or Motörhead could tell you. In fact, a 1970s German art rock outfit doubled down on this principle by calling themselves Amon Düül, which you have to admit is very cööl.

Nowadays, there are new trends in naming rock bands, including the use of cryptic sentences (Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, We Were Promised Jetpacks! and …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, for three examples); peppering a band name with profanities which can’t be printed here; or forgoing the alphabet altogether, as in the case of !!! and +42.

Whatever name you choose, we promise to stand before you, head a-bangin’, hoist a glass high and proudly yell: “Freebird!”

In the Wake of Theremin

Klaatu, Gort and Dr. Samuel Hoffman

Could Klaatu have barada niktoed Gort without Dr. Samuel Hoffman?

Although he invented the instrument that bears his name, Leon Theremin was by no means the only theremin virtuoso. In this episode of NOTES, we take a look at some of the other great theremin players, including Theremin’s own pupil, Clara Rockmore, and the podiatrist-turned-thereminist, Dr. Samuel Hoffman.

For more on Leon Theremin, see “The Astonishing Theremin.”

Drums A Go-Go

Hal Blaine once said: “Drummers are show-offs.”

So who is Hal Blaine, and why should you care what he thinks about drummers? You’ll find the answer in tens of thousands of recorded songs, including over a hundred Top Ten hits. Hal Blaine is, to put it bluntly, the greatest drummer of the rock era.

I got to thinking about Blaine again recently when my friend Miranda wrote on Facebook: “Who is the best rock drummer of all time?”

Miranda herself declared that mantle belonged to Neal Peart, whose athletic, jazz-inflected drumming has underpinned the hard rock of Rush since exactly 36 years ago yesterday.

Some of Miranda’s friends agreed, but others named Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Keith Moon of the Who, Josh Freese of Weezer and Devo, Alex Van Halen of the band which bears his name, and others. One friend nominated Animal from the Muppets.

But me, I’m going with Hal Blaine. All those other drummers are fine musicians, rock royalty, legends in their field.

But Hal Blaine is the man who has provided the very heartbeat of rock n’ roll.

Blaine was born Harold Belsky 81 years ago in Holyoke, Massachusetts, but he moved with his parents to Hartford, Connecticut when he was still very young. His family was musical and two of his relatives were drummers, so it probably surprised no one when, as a child, he crafted a pair of drumsticks from some dowels stolen from the backrest of one of his family’s living room chairs. On his 13th birthday, his sister gave him his first real drum kit, a cheap affair which he would set up on the front porch of the building his family lived in and bash on continuously. In high school, he formed his first bands, but his career really skyrocketed when, as a young man, he returned from a stint with the Army in Korea and studied music in Chicago before landing in L.A. in 1951.

After doing time as part of Tommy Sands’ orchestra, Blaine began to land sessions work. Eventually, he and a loose-knit confederation of young players became known as the “Wrecking Crew.” When rock n’ roll hit big, the Wrecking Crew became the go-to guys for nearly every producer and studio in southern California. Soon, Blaine was making big money playing three to seven sessions daily.

The list of songs that featured Blaine reads like a pop litany: “California Girls,” “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” “Mr. Tambourine Man” — in fact, an incomplete list of Blaine’s hits on Wikipedia currently stands at 102 songs! That’s Blaine playing the iconic “on the four” bass-and-snare part which opens and anchors the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” That’s Blaine all over the classic “Pet Sounds” album by the Beach Boys. And that’s Blaine banging on his own tire chains on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Although Blaine was as technically proficient a drummer as any, part of what made him great was he knew when to add a lot, and when to go minimal — a characteristic which distinguishes him from some of the flashier percussionists listed above. Drummers may be show-offs, as Blaine himself said, but the Greatest One Ever knew when to hang back and let the song shine.

The Amazing Theremin, Pt. 2

Leon Theremin and the Kolyma Gulag

Leon Theremin toiled in the horrible gulag of Kolyma.

In this episode of NOTES, we learn how the inventing prowess of a man once lauded as a hero of Russia’s Communist revolution caused him to wind up doing hard time in a Siberian gulag… and how that same engineering genius brought about his eventual release.

For more on Leon Theremin, see “The Astonishing Theremin.”

Why Your Great-Grandkids (Probably) Won’t Be Listening to the Beatles

Time makes fools of us all.

Plato had it right — we are all trying to make sense of the reflections from outside which flicker on our cave’s walls, unable to comprehend that the years we march from womb to grave are but an infinitesimal sliver of history.

According to modern science, a man who lives to be a hundred has existed for only approximately .000000007 of the time since the Big Bang. During his century of shuffling upon this mortal coil, any conclusions our hypothetical centenarian may have arrived at regarding the way the world operates will be (at best) highly provisional, and subject to the fallacies born of short term observation. If an Arizona mayfly spends his day-long lifespan being rained upon, might he not conclude that his was a world of continuous precipitation?

Recently, I have heard people my age claim the music of our youth will never be forgotten. They are certain their children’s grandchildren will still be listening to the Beatles. (Or Led Zeppelin. Or Bob Dylan. Or the Grateful Dead.)

I think these folks are mayflies.

Consider: To a 13-year-old Craven Lovelace IV in 2052, the Beatles’ best-known recordings will be nearly 90 years old, recorded on ancient technology, and full of cultural allusions which already require a history class to fully explicate. (What was the U.S.S.R.? Where can you find Albert Hall? Who was Chairman Mao? What was a lonely hearts club?)

The odd youngster 40 years hence who is listening to the Beatles will be equivalent to a long-haired 1970s kid searching out wax cylinder recordings of Sousa marches. I’m not saying such iconoclasts didn’t exist among the millions buying HOUSES OF THE HOLY and FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE, but trust me — they were rare.

My boomer friends who maintain that the music of the Beatles will never die are certain the music they grew up with is intrinsically better than all the music that has come along subsequently. Their evidence is the monolithic audience the rock acts of the ‘60s and ‘70s amassed, compared to the smaller fanbases of genres which followed. But that fact likely stems more from historical vagary than from musical superiority.

The Beatles and their peers burst upon the zeitgeist at a time when media had not become fractured. Radio formats had yet to be invented. Television existed in three flavors only: CBS, NBC and ABC. When the Beatles played the ED SULLIVAN SHOW, it snagged millions of eyeballs, not because the Fab Four was the quintessence of musical excellence, but because there was practically nowhere else to turn.

And so I predict your kids’ kids’ kids will be listening to something not yet recorded by someone not yet born. It will be a kind of music that their parents — and probably you, if you’re not molding in your grave — will disdain and abhor. When you hear it, it will make you feel like the world has changed in ways you never expected or desired. It will bear no more relationship to the music of the Beatles than did their songs resemble the hits of 1875.

But it will have a good beat and you can dance to it.

The Amazing Theremin, Pt. 1

Leon Theremin

Leon Theremin invented the world’s first electronic musical instrument.

In this episode of NOTES, the first of a two-part look back at the truly flabbergasting life story of Leon Theremin, we examine the meteoric rise of a humble inventor who became a favorite of Lenin and the toast of New York’s intelligentsia… before his world crumbled below his feet.

For more on Leon Theremin, see “The Astonishing Theremin.”

A Beautiful Noise

When Neil Diamond sang about “a beautiful noise” in 1976, he probably didn’t have My Bloody Valentine in mind.

How could he? The band that goes by that name had not yet come together in Dublin. Heck, the slasher movie from which the band took its name was still five years away from being filmed. Anyway, Neil might not have considered the strange combination of atonality and melody that has come to be known as “noise pop” to be beautiful — but plenty of other folks have. Noise pop, which some dismissed as a passing fad in the 1980s, has proven to have legs.

So what, exactly, is noise pop? The term has been used to describe many different groups over the years. Bands as diverse as harmonic punk rockers Husker Du and the lysergic experimentalists known as Animal Collective have had their music characterized as noise pop. But for many music lovers, noise pop means the genre in which traditional pop notions of melody and harmony are augmented by generous doses of feedback and reverb to create a “wall of sound” like Phil Spector never imagined.

Although it has its precedents in bands like the Velvet Underground, noise pop, so defined, had its true beginning in 1985, when a pair of often bickering brothers combined their love of old Shangri-Las records and the buzzsaw attack of the Ramones to create the Jesus and Mary Chain. Jim and William Reid’s debut album as the J&MC, PSYCHOCANDY, blew the speakers and the minds of a generation of alternative rockers, and paved the way for subsequent bands like the forementioned My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo and Pale Saints.

Eventually, the noise pop of the ‘80s begat the shoegaze scene of the early ‘90s, when acts like Ride, Lush and Chapterhouse dominated the alternative charts, until the grunge movement in the U.S. and the Britpop scene in the U.K. temporarily snuffed the noise pop flame. But re-ignition came in the 2000s, when post-millennial groups like the Horrors, Crocodiles and especially the Raveonettes ushered in a new golden age of noise pop. The latter duo made explicit the link between noise pop and the girl groups of the early 1960s, by covering songs like “My Boyfriend’s Back,” and getting one of that song’s writers, Richard Gottehrer, to produce their second album.

Nowadays, bands like Best Coast, Yuck, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the late, lamented Dum Dum Girls have continued to kick up a gorgeous racket, leaving little doubt that noise pop is here to stay.

Tracking the Spoor of the Signifying Monkey

The Signifying Monkey

This monkey signifies.

“The Signifying Monkey” is one of the most popular songs in the history of rock and the blues… but it originated centuries ago in ancient Africa! Learn about the cultural impact when lion… elephant… and one jive-talking primate come together… in this episode of NOTES.

The photo above is by James Fischer and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Value of an Old-Fashioned Love Song

When the spiky-coiffed, slightly grizzled and diminutive man took the stage of Staples Center in Los Angeles in January, 2014 to accept the “Best Album” Grammy with Daft Punk, a lot of young fans probably wondered: Who was that leprechaun-looking fellow doing the talking for the French robotic duo?

The answer, of course, is Paul Williams, who nabbed his first Grammy nomination (for “Rainy Days and Mondays”) 34 years earlier, a good four years before either member of Daft Punk was even born. When Williams collaborated with Daft Punk on two songs (“Touch” and “Beyond”) from their best-selling RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES last year, he became the only songwriter to have written for Daft Punk and the Monkees (“Someday Man”), Scissor Sisters (“Almost Sorry”) and Streisand (“Evergreen”), Three Dog Night (“Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song”) and the Muppets (“Rainbow Connection”). In a career that has included numerous acting roles — besides his best-known roles as Swan in PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and Little Enos Burdette in SMOKY AND THE BANDIT, Williams has also played the Penguin and an ape engaged in the BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES — the man born Paul Hamilton Williams, Jr. in Bennington, Nebraska has had one of those Zelig-like careers, photo-bombing his way through musical history like nobody else.

You could be forgiven for thinking Williams’ turn on RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES was a bit of a comeback for the 73-year-old songwriter, but the truth is Williams has been more than elbow-deep in the musical industry for the past several years. As a board member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (better known by its acronym: ASCAP) since 2001, and its president since 2009, Williams has advocated for songwriters for well over a decade now.

Williams made news in May, 2014, when he penned an editorial for ROLL CALL, the congressional blog, about ASCAP’s intentions to revamp the laws which govern songwriting royalties. The last time these laws were addressed by Congress was in 2001, before the Apple iPod was invented. Since that time, the music industry has morphed in ways few could have predicted. As a result, it is sadly not uncommon now for music labels and recording artists to make as much as 12 or 14 times the amount a songwriter makes on the same streaming song on Spotify or Pandora.

To help counter the winds against the songwriter Williams and his ASCAP cohorts announced an initiative called “MAP,” which stands for “Music Advocacy Project.” As part of that initiative, Williams traveled to Washington, D.C. last year with other great songwriters like Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman, to meet with lawmakers about ways current licensing laws could be changed to be more equitable to songwriters.

Only time will tell if their efforts will come to fruit, although the ASCAP-approved Songwriter Equity Act of 2015, a (nowadays rare) House Resolution with wide bipartisan support, now sits in committee. But something needs to be done; as the author of “Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song” knows only too well, modern love songs just don’t pay like the old-fashioned ones used to.

Dolemite and the Signifying Monkey


He was so bad, he kicked his own a** twice a day.

There has never been and never will be another man like the late Rudy Ray Moore. As a singer… comedian… actor… and producer… Rudy Ray Moore left an indelible mark on the world of popular culture — and primed the pump for the hip hop acts to come. Find out more about the Human Tornado in this episode of NOTES, recorded before Moore’s passing in October, 2008.

Five Ways “The St. Louis Blues” Changed Everything

There are many important songs in the history of American popular music, but W.C. Handy’s “The St. Louis Blues” has to be near the pinnacle of the pantheon.  Here are five reasons why “The St. Louis Blues” changed America forever:


  1.  It made the blues respectable.  Handy wasn’t the first musician to publish blues songs, but he’s known today as “the Father of the Blues” because his hits transformed what had been an informal, regional, ethnically specific genre into the basis for all of the American pop music which would follow over the next century.  Before the 1914 publication of “The St. Louis Blues,” the blues was considered a novelty. But within a decade, the blues had transformed from being an exotic amusement to the backbone of almost all future American musical invention.  It can be argued that without “The St. Louis Blues,” there would be no rock n’ roll, no soul music, no hip-hop.  And genres like jazz, cabaret and even gospel would be pallid, bloodless versions of what we have come to expect.


  1.  It changed the way musicians did business.  “The St. Louis Blues” came two years after Handy had sold the rights to his first hit, “The Memphis Blues,” to publisher Theron Bennett for $100, and then watched in dismay as the song became a huge money-maker.  As a result, Handy determined to never sell his copyrights again.  And that proved to be a wise choice — by the time he passed away in 1958, Handy was still making $25,000 a year from “The St. Louis Blues” royalties.  (In 1958, $25k had the buying power of more than $200-thousand today.)  Handy turned his songs into a fortune by creating his own publishing company, and became a model for subsequent generations of songwriters and performers.


  1.  It cemented stardom for Bessie Smith.  Whereas white singer Marion Harris was the first to score a hit with “The St. Louis Blues,” the version recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925 is widely considered to be the definitive interpretation of the song.  By then, Smith was already on the music industry’s radar thanks to best-selling “race records,” but her version of “The St. Louis Blues” (replete with subtly beautiful cornet accompaniment by Louis Armstrong) caused her star to skyrocket.  Four years later, Smith appeared in her only film: “The St. Louis Blues,” in which she sang the song that gave the film its title and provided her the mantle of “Queen of the Blues.”


  1.  It expanded the blues’ musical palette.  One reason ”The St. Louis Blues” turned heads in 1914 was that Handy combined the so-called 12-bar blues with a tango.  In both his personal dealings and his work as a musician, Handy was a bridge-builder, and by merging the blues with a then-popular dance rhythm, he drafted the blueprint for much of the experimentation which would turn American music into the world’s most creative hotbed for the next century.


  1.  It forever changed the role of African-Americans in popular culture.  In treating the African-American experience respectfully and sympathetically, “The St. Louis Blues” set a standard that could not be rolled back thereafter.  Permanently vanquished were the “coon songs” of yore.  Blacks were finally treated as people, not mascots, and some historians see “The St. Louis Blues” as a bellwether moment, the butterfly-wing flutter which would grow into the juggernaut of the Civil Rights movement a half-century later.