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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
1. NAME IT AFTER YOURSELF.
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.
2. GET LITERATE. OR WATCH A MOVIE.
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.
4. WHEN IN DOUBT: UMLAUT!
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!”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
When Philadelphia’s “gentle Don,” Angelo Bruno, wanted to make his daughter’s wedding special, he called his old buddy, Sam Giancana… who, in turn, told Frank, Dean and Sammy to be there, capish? Learn how, when Sam said, “Jump!” the Rat Pack asked, “How high?” in this episode of NOTES.
It’s one of the most famous three minutes and 48 seconds in rock n’ roll. And its story is marked by theft, madness, domestic violence — and murder.
When Derek and the Dominos’ LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS hit record store shelves in November, 1970, it was widely anticipated by the fans of two guitar legends: Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Clapton had been a star in his native U.K. since his 1963-’65 stint in the Yardbirds, after which he had, in just a few years, done time in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers… spent a couple years (and become a rock star in the U.S.) as the guitarist in Cream… cut an album with Blind Faith; toured with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends… and recorded his first solo album. In 1970, believing he would be more comfortable as a member of an ensemble rather than a headlining “star,” Clapton decided to form a new band with some of the musicians in Delaney and Bonnie and Friends as well as former Stax sideman, Bobby Whitlock. They joined together with Clapton’s old friend Carl Radle on bass and Wrecking Crew drummer Jim Gordon to form the band that would be known as Derek and the Dominos.
Duane Allman was the last to the party. After recording the first sessions for the new album, producer Tom Dowd took Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert. After the show, Clapton invited Allman back to the studio to jam. By the time their partnership had ended, Allman had contributed slide guitar to 11 of the 14 songs on LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS.
The album spawned a couple of hits. But by far, its best-known song is the title track, which Clapton wrote to express his unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the model wife of Beatles guitarist George Harrison. A searing guitar riff and Clapton’s tortured vocals would have made “Layla” memorable no matter what. But sealing the deal was a nearly four-minute piano coda of such sheer loveliness that “Layla” was recognized almost immediately as a new classic.
The coda was credited to drummer Jim Gordon, who played the main piano part while Allman contributed the (slightly off-key) slide guitar. But years later, it was revealed that Gordon had stolen the melody of the “Layla” coda from his ex-girlfriend, singer Rita Coolidge. Coolidge (who was living with Gordon in early 1970 but who left him after he gave her a black eye in the hallway of New York’s Warwick Hotel) had written the music for a song called “Time,” and knew Gordon had stolen her melody but, afraid of his temper, decided to shine it on.
Gordon continued to work steadily after the Derek and the Dominos sessions. (You can hear his work on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” among others). But years of cycling between heroin, cocaine and alcohol had taken a grim toll on the talented musician. Through the 1970s, Gordon wrestled with acute schizophrenia. He was paranoid. He heard voices. He became convinced his mother was evil, and had killed Karen Carpenter and comedian Paul Lynde. Finally, in 1983, he murdered his own mother, bludgeoning her with a hammer before stabbing her with a butcher knife. Jim Gordon, the man whose piano-playing on the “Layla” coda has brought grown men to tears, is now in his 32nd year in prison in Vacaville, California, where he is expected to spend the rest of his life.