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Posts Tagged ‘Motown’

If there’s one thing shared among visitors, writers, and critics who follow the Rock Hall, it is the deeply held belief that the institution isn’t doing justice to some group or other. It might be a genre- heavy metal, or 70s R&B, or 80s alternative. It might be a demographic or time-frame: women, minorities, Gen X music, and so on. I’d argue that one of the bigger dilemmas is that contributors to rock and roll outside of performing artists have the most reason to be aggrieved. I’ve followed the Rock Hall intently for the last four induction cycles. In that time, we had only 3 non-performers (Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham, and Bert Burns); 3 Musical Excellence recipients (Nile Rodgers, Ringo Starr, and the E Street Band); and a pitiful one lone Early Influence (The “5” Royales. I don’t know why the “5” is in quotation marks either.)

A couple months ago, I solicited advice from some of the other Rock Hall watchers in terms of some good prospects for these categories. Tom Lane, Michelle Bourg (who did her own list), and Charles Crossley, Jr. all came through with some fine suggestions. I took some, rejected others, and did my own research to supplement theirs. What follows are my 20 prospects for Musical Excellence, and I will follow in a later post with 10 Early Influence ideas, and 15 Non-Performers. Keep in mind- this list isn’t intended to be exhaustive, and just because someone you admire isn’t on the list doesn’t mean that I don’t think they are Rock Hall-worthy. This is merely a list of who I see as the biggest priorities, or who I would advocate for if given the chance.

  1. Brian Eno: It’s hard to think of a producer, musician, and visionary who has played a greater role in the unfolding of rock and roll in cerebral, abstract, and atmospheric directions. From his early work playing keyboards for Roxy Music, to his production for David Bowie, U2, Coldplay, and many others, to his groundbreaking ambient albums, Eno is a towering figure in 20th century music, not just rock and roll.
  2. Willie Nelson: He’s not early enough to be an early influence. He has rock and roll characteristics, sure, but he is widely thought of as a country artist. Why not just give The Red-Headed Stranger a Musical Excellence Award and be done with it? His career has spanned decades, he became one of the greatest touring artists in modern history, and he routinely traversed the frontiers between genres. He’s in his mid-80s now, so let’s do the right thing and honor him while he’s among the living. And bring plenty of munchies to the after-party.
  3. Funk Brothers: The lineup fluctuated, but they ultimately played on more #1 hits than The Beatles and Elvis combined. Bassist James Jamerson is already inducted, but Joe Messina, Earl Van Dyke, and Benny Benjamin have played on dozens of the great Motown songs you know and love. From the ethereal organ of the Four Tops’ “Bernadette” to the rattlesnake tambourine in “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” they always knew how to accentuate a great song. Otis Williams of The Temptations once opined that The Funk Brothers “must go down in history as one of the best groups of musicians anywhere.” Always essential and always unobtrusive. Berry Gordy did his best to make sure they didn’t get enough credit to enjoy leverage and bargaining power. So let’s make sure they are enshrined in the Rock Hall and give them the plaudits that so often eluded them in the prime of their careers.
  4. Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section: They contributed the snappy arrangements and solid musicianship behind Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and other soul greats of the 1960s and 1970s. Organist Spooner Oldham is already in, but his colleagues are left out in the cold, just like most of the Funk Brothers.
  5. Todd Rundgren: If ever there was a good fit for this category, Rundgren is it. None of his bands–Nazz or Utopia–quite have a Rock Hall resumé, and certainly Rundgren’s chops as a producer need to be taken into account as well. He should be inducted, if only to hear Meat Loaf’s speech and to get “Bang on the Drum” as the jam at the end of the show.
  6. Lee “Scratch” Perry: His recording career and his production work with Bob Marley and the Wailers helped put reggae on the map. Prolific and confrontational, he has also been a champion for reggae artists who have been taken advantage of by major record labels. He’s also collaborated with a number of artists outside his immediate field, including Paul McCartney and The Beastie Boys.
  7. Carol Kaye: Seriously. How is this woman not in the Rock Hall yet? While other members of the famous Wrecking Crew are in, including drummer Hal Blaine and pianist Leon Russell, their bass player and sometimes-guitarist is still inexplicably left out. Never mind Kaye’s obstacles making it as a female instrumentalist in a stubbornly male field, her track record is astounding. That’s her playing on everything from “California Girls” by The Beach Boys, to “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens, to Freak Out! by Frank Zappa & the Mothers, to one of my favorite guilty pleasures, “Midnight Confessions” by The Grass Roots. Music writers use the word “inexcusable” a lot when talking about the omissions of their pet favorites. This one is actually inexcusable.
  8. The JBs: They earned a surprise nomination for the Class of 2016, shocking the hell out of everybody, even though Future Rock Legends listed them as “Previously Considered.” They are, of course, best known as James Brown’s backing band, although they released a number of fine titles under their own name. They are significant, firstly, for their role in helping the Godfather of Soul create the elemental groove of funk music. But secondly, their horn riffs, and drum lines, and bass parts are among the most sampled in hip-hop.
  9. Billy Preston: The Rock Hall sometimes gets into a bad habit of inducting everybody associated with The Beatles- perhaps partly because it is a guaranteed ratings boost. Preston may not be the true “Fifth Beatle”- George Martin earns that title, with Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans as backups- but his skill at the electric organ saved the moribund “Get Back” sessions from outright collapse. More than that, Preston had a number of fine, upbeat R&B tracks in the 70s, including “Outa Space”, “Will It Go Round in Circles”, and “Nothing From Nothing.” He was one of the great session and touring sidemen of rock history, working with three solo Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He also wrote “You Are So Beautiful” and his philosophy of serial monogamy inspired Stephen Stills to write “Love the One You’re With.” Quite a legacy.
  10. The Revolution: If we are going to induct the E Street Band, why not them? If they were ever going to get it, it should have been the ceremony directly after Prince’s death. They truly lived up to their name, revolutionary in their gender and racial make-up, and revolutionary in bringing together funk, R&B, 80s technology, and pop sensibilities that helped Prince become one of the preeminent artists of his day.
  11. The Section: Look- 70s singer-songwriter and soft rock was a hell of a lot more musically sophisticated and difficult to play than anybody gave it credit for. The genre favored the composer over the ensemble, so the backing musicians behind the artist were often consigned to obscurity. Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Craig Doerge, and Danny Kortchmar were iconic and inescapable. Here’s a partial list of their oeuvre: Carole King’s Tapestry, CSN and affiliated solo projects, Linda Ronstadt’s work, Sweet Baby James, “Werewolves in London,” Jackson Browne, Dan Fogelberg. They are Laurel Canyon.
  12. MFSB: Similarly, the hi-hat-focused beat of disco gets overlooked as well, and MFSB, more or less the house band on the Gamble and Huff recordings, should also be inducted. They had a hit of their own with “The Sound of Philadelphia,” and laid down the beat for The O’Jays, The Spinners, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. But maybe their most historically significant recordings were for artists like The Trampps, which established the contours of what a good, artistically sound disco recording should be like.
  13. Randy Rhoads: He’s in the conversation as one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, but he somehow isn’t in the Hall. His playing for Ozzy Osbourne, among others, added the classicist’s precision to the dark and brooding brand of Ozzy’s metal, and his untimely death in the 1980s has only added to his legend. Incidentally, Nom Com member Tom Morello actually named one of his kids after Randy Rhoads, so you know there’s a good chance that this induction might actually happen.
  14. Ry Cooder: Another one of the legendary guitarists who should be honored with an induction. Rolling Stone named him 8th on its list of all-time guitarists. His back-to-the-roots style was a great fit for the 1970s, and added much of the character and proficiency that made The Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Randy Newman’s mid-decade output, and Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk so memorable.
  15. The Andantes: There’s an interesting precedent here with Darlene Love. As many rock hobbyists know, Phil Spector ushered in The Crystals’ career. But as he maniacally attempted to perfect their sound, he brought in uncredited singers to take their place, ultimately using more fake Crystals than a sketchy Atlantic City jeweler. One of them, Darlene Love, was finally- at the urging of Steve Van Zandt- nominated and inducted. The Andantes are sort of the parallel for Motown- unsung, uncredited, and poorly remembered. When the relationship between Diana Ross and the other Supremes, Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, became toxic, The Andantes backed Ross on the last few years’ worth of Supremes records, a run that included a handful of #1 hits. They also provided the female background vocals on hits like “Baby, I Need Your Loving” and “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” and whenever a woman’s voice was needed on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” That’s them playing off Mary Wells during the coda of “My Guy.” An unheralded group that deserves better.
  16. The Meters: Like The JBs, this funk outfit has been nominated before as an artist, and probably didn’t come even close to getting the votes necessary for induction. Of course, as stand-alone artists, The Meters are very fine. “Cissy Strut” and “Look-Ka Py Py” have deep grooves and unassailable musicianships. But The Meters also carved out a niche as the backing group for anybody passing through New Orleans.  As Allen Toussaint’s house band, they also played on records by Dr. John, Wings, Paul Simon, Joe Cocker…the list goes on. And like The JBS, their funky riffs have been used liberally in hip-hop samples for over three decades running. I can’t wait for Trombone Shorty’s induction speech.
  17. Al Kooper: The Forrest Gump of rock and roll. He seemed to have been there at so many key moments. He played on The Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts” (alongside future Four Season Bob Gaudio). He wrote “This Diamond Ring” for Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Despite never playing organ before, he faked his way into a Bob Dylan session and played that iconic part on “Like A Rolling Stone.” He founded Blood, Sweat & Tears. He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd (hey, no one’s perfect.) He played guitar on Who’s Next and Electric Ladyland. Amazing resumé.
  18. Nikolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson: It would be a shame if, like Carole King, they got in as non-performers, because they had a fine run of hits on their own auspices. But they are most well known for their songwriting efforts together, which included most of the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell duets (including “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”), and “I’m Every Woman.” They even did an underrated album, Been Found, featuring collaborations with Maya Angelou.
  19. Danger Mouse: There’s a real danger indeed if the Rock Hall keeps focusing so intently on 1960s and 1970s output. To break the geriatric death grip of the Boomer generation, I want to put forward Danger Mouse as a worthy recipient for excellence in a number of different fields. If we are looking at great producers, Danger Mouse should be in the conversation with George Martin, Phil Spector, and others. The Observer writes of him, “Whether as a producer, songwriter or recording artist, Danger Mouse doesn’t have a signature sound so much as a signature feeling – intense, atmospheric, melancholy-laden.” He took the immersive feel of, say, Pink Floyd, and brought it into other elements of popular music. In the process, he produced records for Adele, Outkast, Norah Jones, and The Black Keys. The 1970s and 1980s divided “black music” and “white music” in ways we are still grappling with today, but Danger Mouse has found clever ways of bringing them back together as of old, perhaps nowhere more adroitly than the Beatles/Jay Z mashup “The Grey Album.” As a musician, a deejay, and a producer, Danger Mouse needs to be recognized as a modern-day great.
  20. Babyface: For the final spot, we have the man who, perhaps more than anyone else, helped create modern R&B. Like a contemporary Smokey Robinson, he does it all- sings smooth and soulful hits, writes, and produces. Lets see…he helped create New Jack Swing; helped Boyz II Men make some of the longest-tenured #1 hits ever, produced one of my favorite 90s groups, TLC; founded two record labels; thrived outside of R&B by producing for Eric Clapton and Madonna; was involved in 26 #1 R&B hits; and won 11 Grammy Awards. Other artists he’s produced for: Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Paula Abdul, and Ariana Grande. And that’s just the wikipedia version of his life.

So- those are my twenty Musical Excellence choices. I tried to pick people who excelled in multiple areas of rock, or didn’t fit easy categorization: performers who were songwriters, deejays who were producers, genre-benders, and so on. Stay tuned- we’ll tackle Early Influences and Non-Performers next.

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