Posts Tagged ‘Harry Belafonte’

Here we are at the last of the three posts which highlight worthy candidates for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s auxiliary categories. I have for your consideration a dozen picks for the now seldom-used Early Influence category. One problem is that the past keeps catching up to us: artists like Wanda Jackson and Freddie King were given a backdoor induction into the Hall through this category after failing to get enough votes as performers on the ballot. It’s problematic, partly because our criteria for “early” keeps changing.  The Nom Com grows less likely to pick artists from rock and roll’s infancy and voters are less likely to choose them when they do.

  1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe: This gospel blueswoman has become a cause célèbre among Rock Hall followers. Listen to her music and you can hear the blueprints of rock and roll being painstakingly drawn up. While the blues and country are important strands of the story, both are riddled with loss and lamentation. Where does the joy come from? I think it’s the gospel influences, and their call-and-responses, their profound hope are a large part of the answer.  Tharpe had all that in spades, and had all the marks of authenticity classic rockers love: she played the guitar, and she wrote her own music. She helped bring gospel into the mainstream, merging the genre in a convincing synthesis with the jump blues. Sister Rosetta was all about rock and roll’s paramount mission: finding a meeting ground of the sacred and the profane. She helped usher Little Richard into fame, and was listed as a major formative influence for artists as varied as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner. There’s even hints of social conscience to come in her music– listen to her admonition to “study war no more” in the gospel classic “Down By the Riverside.”
  2. Patsy Cline: You can certainly make an argument for Patsy Cline to get in as a performer rather than an influence. The chronology is right, but for me, the genre isn’t. She was a Nashville-centered country-and-western artist who recorded material almost wholly from that milieu. Maybe if she had lived longer, she might have done a trio with the Everly Brothers, or gone on tour with Linda Ronstadt or something, but we’ll never know. What we do know is how Patsy Cline is one of the most articulate and resonant popular music vocalists of the 20th century, and her contralto sound looms large over a throng of vocalists. To listen to her songs is to know loneliness and loss intimately.
  3. Ivory Joe Hunter: Fellow Rock Hall guy Charles Crossley recently came up with a master list of 1,100 artists for Cleveland’s consideration that puts my list of 100 to shame. #1 on his list is Ivory Joe Hunter. My own philosophy is that artists who peaked artistically before 1954 should be “early influences”– and Hunter would be a very fine addition in that category. His work in the late 40s and early 50s found a way to merge blues and country- two of the “primary color” genres that created rock and roll. While other artists in these genres were ragged, Hunter was often smooth and soulful, and his “Landlord Blues,” “Since I Met You Baby,” and “Pretty Mama Blues” are essential listening.
  4. The Carter Family: The Carters lit up the country circuit as far back as 1926 and remained a presence on the American music scene well into the 1950s and 1960s. Maybelle Carter was one of the first country singers to use a guitar, and with the help of Leslie Riddle, they scoured the countryside for the music of the South, Appalachia, and the Ozarks. In doing so, their songs, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Keep on the Sunny Side,” and “Wildwood Flower” remain standards to this day. June Carter, of course, was part of this family line.
  5. Roy Brown: Dave Marsh, in his book of rock lists, went to town trying to list over 100 candidates for the very first rock and roll song. Quite a few of them were Roy Brown’s- no doubt, you’ve heard “Good Rocking Tonight,” and maybe “Rockin’ at Midnight” and “Hard Luck Blues” as well. Rolling Stone’s Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll notes that he was a fundamental part of shaping the New Orleans sound, and that B.B. King and Bobby Bland modeled their singing style after his enthusiastic jump blues vocals.
  6. Charlie Patton: Tom Lane has brought Patton’s name up on his own blog as a possible Early Influence nominee. And since Patton is widely regarded as “The Father of the Delta Blues,” it’s hard to deny him that honor. His epic “High Water Everywhere” told the tale of the devastating 1927 Mississippi floods. Temperamental, wild, and dying at the age of 43, leaving a trail of wives and girlfriends in his wake, he lived the quintessential blues life.
  7. Sonny Boy Williamson I: The blues changed the moment Williamson stepped forward and used the harmonica as a lead instrument. His output shaped the Chicago blues scene, and he even served as a mentor to Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers. His murder at the age of 34 ended the life of a great artist. It’s not his fault that another harmonica player purloined his name and made a career out of being a Sonny Boy imposter.
  8. Lonnie Donegan: The fate of the world changed unexpectedly when Lonnie Donegan became the face of the skiffle craze in Britain in the 1950s. All across the British Isles, youngsters imitated Donegan’s use of homemade instruments like tea-chest basses and washboard percussion as he performed Jimmie Rodgers and Lead Belly songs in a fast, fervent style. It’s well known that the Quarrymen began as a skiffle group, unskilled even by the genre’s undemanding standards- but Ronnie Wood, Graham Nash, Roger Daltrey, and Robin Trower all started out as British skiffle devotees. It introduced a generation of schoolchildren in the U.K. to Americana.
  9. Harry Belafonte: It’s hard to believe- but Harry Belafonte vs. Elvis Presley was a legitimate teen idol debate in 1956. At the same time as ElvisMania began, the calypso craze engulfed America. Belafonte was its herald, as his album Calypso stayed at #1 for 8 weeks. Belafonte’s music tried to find points of connection between the folk music ethic and the music of his Caribbean ancestry. In the process, Belafonte developed a profound social conscience. He was a strong celebrity presence in the civil rights movement; how many people know that he paid for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral out of his own pocket? His battles blazed a path for future rock and roll entertainers. When Petula Clark touched his arm when they sang “On the Path to Glory” on Clark’s television show, it ignited a national controversy. No white woman had touched a black man on national television. When Southern television stations threatened to not show the program, Belafonte told Clark, “let’s take ’em on.” Clark’s producer destroyed all other takes of their duet without touching, and the show was broadcast to rave reviews. Belafonte, I might add, is also on good terms with the Rock Hall. He helped induct both Pete Seeger and Public Enemy.
  10. Tom Lehrer: This Harvard-trained mathematics professor was also one of the greatest satirists of the 20th century. When Borscht Belt foolishness like Allan Sherman dominated musical comedy, his dark, cynical perspective skewered Cold War nihilism with such numbers as “We Will All Go Together When We Go” and “So Long Mom.” In an age where cloying numbers about halcyon days past were topping the charts, Lehrer turned The Browns’ “The Old Lamplighter” into “The Old Dope Peddler.” Any time a rock and roller uses satire to skewer a social problem, they owe Lehrer a debt- whether it’s Randy Newman songs, Weird Al’s sharper material (“Whatever U Like,” “Skipper Dan”), Dead Kennedy’s “Holiday in Cambodia” or Faith No More’s “We Care A Lot.”
  11. Odetta: Folk met the blues with this singular talent. Folk music could at times be wearily NPR-ish and insistent on authenticity, but Odetta made sure it had the blues’ naturalism and rhythm intact. The folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s laid the groundwork for rock and roll to address the great struggles that would face the nation in the Vietnam era, and Odetta was one of the most crucial figures in that movement. Like recent Rock Hall inductee Joan Baez, she sang at the March on Washington and was a steady presence at civil rights marches. Oh- and Bob Dylan credits her as the person who piqued his interest in folk music.
  12. Django Reinhardt: Behold- Europe’s first guitar hero. His gypsy stylings worked beautifully with jazz, and everyone from Chet Atkins to The Allman Brothers have imitated his fluid stylings. The photographer Harry Benson once remembered from his time with The Beatles: John loved talking about the intellectuals he had met. Paul loved talking about the movie stars he’d met. Ringo loved talking about the royalty he’d met. George talked about Django Reinhardt. “I’ll never be as good as he is,” Benson recollected Harrison saying, “but that’s what I’m aiming for.” Or consider Jerry Garcia’s praise: “His technique is awesome! Even today, nobody has really come to the state that he was playing at. As good as players are, they haven’t gotten to where he is. There’s a lot of guys that play fast and a lot of guys that play clean, and the guitar has come a long way as far as speed and clarity go, but nobody plays with the whole fullness of expression that Django has.”
  13. Ah, what the heck. Let’s make it a baker’s dozen and include Wynonie Harris. His profane variations of the jump blues had the swing and verve that is identifiable as protean rock and roll. Even a young Elvis Presley watched him, and incorporated his vocal stylings and physical presence into his own act. With songs like “I Like My Baby’s Pudding,” you can see where Big Joe Turner and others got the idea of lacing their songs with delicious innuendo.  Harris helped bring “race music,” as it was called back then, from the (relative) margins and into the public consciousness.

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Alright, mateys.  We are nearly a third of the way through with this posting.  Our next ten albums on the project include several of rock’s all-time greats.  Without any further ado:

21.  The Band- Music from Big Pink (1968): I can see why people love this album.  Really, I do.  I am not quite sure that I do.  It seemed…enervated, I guess.  I appreciate that it is going for a bit of a hootenanny atmosphere, and finesse is not what Robbie Robertson and co. are aiming for.  Having said that, there is only so much poorly coordinated vocal parts and double-tracking that one can take.  I mean- the material here is wonderful- “The Weight” is timeless, and justifiably so.  Still- compare this version here, to say, Ringo Starr and the All-Starr’s version from 1989- sadly, Ringo and crew (Which included Band members Levon Helm and Rick Danko) outdid the canonical studio performance.  I will say this, though- Garth Hudson is a true organ, keyboard, and piano virtuoso.  The man deserves to be in conversations about the best rock keyboard guys, and no mistake.

22.  Velvet Underground & Nico– epon. (1967): I wasn’t fond of this album either, and I feel awful saying that, since founding member Lou Reed died this week, a few days after I played the album.  (If this is going to be a trend, maybe I should give Ted Nugent a listen after all.)  Here’s the thing– I think my musical palette is sophisticated enough to recognize a good band whose music I just don’t dig (The Band) and an overrated band that just isn’t that good (Velvet Underground.)  Sorry guys, it just doesn’t work.  They get points for sort of being edgy and doing songs about heroin.  And some of John Cale’s violin parts are creepy and ethereal.  But the craftsmanship is just terrible, Nico is probably the worst singer I’ve heard yet for this project, and when you put all this together, you have an album that is only member for Andy Warhol drawing a picture of a banana.  Velvet Underground is a garage band that should have stayed in the garage.

23.  Harry Belafonte- Calypso (1956): What a lovely surprise.  I was expecting something superficially Caribbean, and was shown something close to art.  Everybody knows “Day-O”, but Lord Burgess’s sweet and lilting Jamaican songs, “Jamaican Farewell” and “I Do Adore Her” are especially nice, and add immeasurably to the mix.  This album was #1 for over 10 weeks when it was first released, and it deserved every bit of that success.  How fortunate we are that a performer of Belafonte’s caliber is still with us today.

24.  TLC- Crazysexycool (1994): As someone who was a teenager in the 90s, this album was inescapable; it was a rite of passage.  TLC took hip-hop further into the mainstream than ever before, and it looses none of the street creed.  My goodness, though, those songs we were singing when we were 13- “Creep” is about seeking revenge against a cheating lover, “Waterfalls” addresses AIDS, “Red Light Special” is raunchy– we just didn’t have any idea at the time, and that is what makes this album so timeless.

25.  Jackson Browne- Late for the Sky (1974): Surprisingly disappointing.  I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I did not give this album a fair shot, listening to it while grading papers on a Friday, preparing to leave work for the week.  I was a lot more impressed with the album when I sat down and looked at the lyrics, which show a great deal of forethought and aplomb.  But as a musical piece, it was just too mellow at the wrong time, and I suppose I expected something a bit more upbeat from the guy who wrote “Running on Empty” and “Take it Easy.”

26.  Guess Who- American Woman (1970): Ever since seeing Randy Bachman perform with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 1995 as a 12-year-old, I’ve had a soft spot for the Guess Who.  This project was designed to give me a good reason to delve a bit into their catalog, and despite a bunch of clever Manitoba-ish album titles like Canned Wheat, I went with the album that bore the name of their most famous hit, and their last album before Bachman split.  Very good, serviceable album.  I never thought of the Guess Who as the sort of band that did instrumentals, but it worked.  I also did not think they could do psychedelia (“Talisman”), but it also worked.  Moreover, I was impressed by what an ensemble they were by this time, it wasn’t just Bachman and lead singer/keyboardist Burton Cummings- they worked together to create a solid rock and roll sound that hasn’t always been given its due.

27.  Indigo Girls– epon. (1990): One of only two albums made after 1972 in this set of 10, it was also the first in this batch that really impressed me.  Erudite, truthful, and wise without trying to be too clever or pretentious, this is a good, solid folk-rock album by a duo that I admire a little more every time I listen to, and may have snuck into my top 20 artists ever.  As an academic, their opening track about the limits of academia, “Closer I am To Fine”, hits a bit close to home.  And I like that.

28.  Rolling Stones- Sticky Fingers (1971): I was inspired, I suppose, to pick this one as my Stones album for the project, since it showed up in Heather’s readings on masculinity, and not only for its bulgy-trousered album cover.  I’ve never listened to a Stones album in its entreaty before, and doing so made me believe that they are a good album band, but a much better singles band.  And that sentence will make every Stones fan’s head explode.  You always remember a Stones song when it comes up on classic rock radio– when I worked as a dishwasher a dozen or so years ago, the highlight of my work shift could be hearing “Brown Sugar” on 106.5.  But 40 minutes of the Stones?  Too much cynicism passing for art, I’m afraid, and too much misogyny passing for worldly wisdom.  Don’t get me wrong- it was a really good record, and I appreciate the skill that went into it.  But I expected arguably the best record from the World’s Second Greatest Rock Band to be a bit better.

29.  Moody Blues- Days of Future Passed (1967): This was truly extraordinary.  A legendary rock album that lived up to the hype all the way.  Although it is often categorized as progressive rock, that isn’t quite right, although it shares progressive rock’s ambition.  Rather, classical-rock is better; large parts of the album are lush and symphonic, with the entire work encompassing a day in the life.  That kind of outline might seem pretentious- and yet the Moodys’ greatest trick is taking this concept- complete with spoken word poems at the beginning and the end- and execute it in deadly earnest.  If I was to revisit my “100 Artists who Belong in the Hall of Fame” post, I would move the Moodys up several notches.

30.  The Byrds- Mr. Tambourine Man (1965): The Byrds were enormously influential- you can say that they are the missing link between the British Invasion sound and the psychedelic sound.  Alongside Peter, Paul & Mary, they helped bring Dylan to the masses, and did so with some remarkable devices- not the least of which was their rough, but beautiful harmonies, and Roger McGuinn’s jangly 12-string guitar.  It made “Mr. Tambourine Man” one of the most important singles ever, but this entire album is filled with jingle-jangle guitar, and stoned-out harmonies.  It is good, but repetitive.  It makes me appreciate how The Beatles never let a single gimmick- the sitar, wah-wah guitar, the moog synthesizer, double-tracking, harmonica, you name it- dominate an album the way that the 12-string dominates this.

If forced to rank them, I guess it is: Days of Future Passed, Indigo Girls, Sticky Fingers, Calypso, American Woman, Crazysexycool, Mr. Tambourine Man, Late for the Sky, Music from Big Pink, Velvet Underground & Nico.

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