Category Archives: Performers

Haiti’s celebrity president

michael-martelly

With his country descending into its worst political crisis since the 2004 coup d’etat, and thousands of people demanding his resignation in the streets, in early 2016 Haiti’s outgoing president, Michel Martelly, went back to basics: He released a new song insulting and taunting in crude and sexualized terms a female journalist known to be critical of him.

Before becoming head of state in 2011, Martelly was a pop star known as Sweet Micky who performed Haitian compas (kompa direk). Micky was famous for saying or doing anything to get a reaction, and his genius was combining the image of the rock rebel with the anything-goes, upside-down spirit of kanaval, the Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras—for example, one can find video footage of Haiti’s president performing in a halter top and miniskirt.

Bringing a similar strategy to his presidential run, he was the anti-politician who openly insulted competitors, critics, and the media. Before his election Martelly’s supporters argued that, because he was already so rich and famous, their candidate couldn’t be bribed or bought. The competition dismissed Martelly’s candidacy as a joke, at first, and the press did too, all the while giving him blanket coverage.

With support by foreign investors and the backing of the U.S., Martelly won a surprise victory. But after five years of stalled and canceled elections, rising insecurity and poverty, political violence, and accusations of corruption, Sweet Micky’s novelty wore off—and in his last weeks in power any vestiges of presidential restraint also wore off, as evidenced by the song referenced above. It may turn out that Haiti was, as it has been so many times, ahead of the historical curve, anticipating the rise of other populist celebrity political figures worldwide.

This according to “What happens when a celebrity becomes president” by Jonathan Katz (The Atlantic monthly 9 February 2016).

Above, Martelly dancing at a presentation ceremony; below, the song in question.

BONUS: Sweet Mickey performs in drag.

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Filed under Curiosities, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Eartha Kitt and feline metaphors

eartha-kitt

From practically the beginning, critics gushed over Eartha Kitt with every feline term imaginable: her voice “purred” or was “like catnip”, she was a “sex kitten” who “slinked” or was “on the prowl” across the stage, sometimes “flashing her claws”, and her career was often said to have had “nine lives”.

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Appropriately, she was tapped to play Catwoman in the 1960s TV series Batman, bringing feral, compact energy to the role (insert, click to enlarge).

Throughout her six-decade career Kitt remained a fixture on the cabaret circuit, maintaining her voice and figure through a vigorous fitness regimen. Even after learning that she had cancer, she triumphantly opened the newly renovated Café Carlyle in September 2007; The New York times reviewer wrote that Ms. Kitt’s voice was “in full growl”.

This according to “Eartha Kitt, a seducer of audiences, dies at 81” by Rob Hoerburger (The New York times CLVIII/54,536 [26 December 2008] p. 37).

Today would have been Kitt’s 90th birthday! Below, in one of her signature songs, purring in French (one of the seven languages that she sang in).

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Filed under Animals, Performers, Popular music

Zuzana Růžičková, survivor

zuzana-ruzickova

Zuzana Růžičková endured three concentration camps and was persecuted by communists in the following years. Nevertheless, she went on to become one of the world’s leading harpsichordists.

Born in Czechoslovakia to a prosperous Jewish family, Růžičková had a happy childhood but was sickly, suffering from tuberculosis. One day, as a reward for getting better from her illness, she asked her parents for a piano and piano lessons. Though doctors had ordered her to rest, she eventually got her way, and her teacher was so impressed that she encouraged her to go to France to study with the world’s top harpsichordist.

But in 1939 the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia; Růžičková was unable to continue her studies in France, and three years later she and her family were deported to the Terezin labor camp. “My childhood ended there,” she says.

Music helped her to survive. She remembers writing down a small section of Bach’s English Suite No 5 on a scrap of paper when she left Terezin in a cattle truck bound for Auschwitz. “I wanted to have a piece of Bach with me as a sort of talisman because I didn’t know what was awaiting us.”

Růžičková was due to be gassed on 6 June 1944, but she was saved by the D-Day landings, which took place early that day. She then endured forced labor in Germany before being sent to the Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945, where she contracted bubonic plague.

When she finally returned home to Czechoslovakia her hands were badly damaged from working in the fields and hauling bricks. She was advised to abandon any ambition for a musical career. But, she says, “I couldn’t live without music,” and she practiced the piano for twelve hours a day to make up for lost time.

Despite continued persecution by the communist government, Růžičková went on to forge a distinguished career as a harpsichordist. Her international breakthrough came in 1956 when she won the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, and she was allowed to perform in competitions and concerts around the world because she was a lucrative source of foreign currency for the state. Between 1965 and 1975 she became the first person to record Bach’s complete keyboard works.

She remains grateful to the composer, who, she says, “played a big role in my recovering from my terrible experiences…Bach is very soothing. You always feel in his music that God is present somehow.”

This according to “The miraculous life of Zuzana Ruzickova” by Rebecca Jones (BBC news 19 December 2016).

Today is Růžičková’ 90th birthday! Below, performing Bach’s English suite no. 5, her early talisman.

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Filed under Baroque era, Performers

Fred McDowell and “You gotta move”

fred-mcdowell

Although he was nicknamed “Mississippi”, Fred McDowell was born in Tennessee, and lived in Memphis for more than thirty years. He worked at various factories and farms, and played guitar at weekend dances.

McDowell’s “You gotta move” was covered by The Rolling Stones on their 1971 album Sticky fingers and appeared in their film Gimme shelter (1970) as well as on their Love you live album (1977). The jazz singer Cassandra Wilson also covered “You gotta move” in 2002. McDowell himself recorded three versions of the song: acoustic (1965), electric (1971), and with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers of Como, Mississippi (1966).

This according to “McDowell, Fred” by  Yves Laberge (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] pp. 670); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is McDowell’s 111th birthday! Below, his seminal 1965 recording.

BONUS: The Stones, around the time of Sticky fingers.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

(Re)discovering Sam Chatmon

sam-chatmon

Around 1910 Sam Chatmon formed a family string band with seven of his siblings that would later develop into the Mississippi Sheiks.

In 1936 Sam and his brother Lonnie made twelve recordings as the Chatman [sic] Brothers; Sam did not record again for twenty-four years. During that time he worked as a farmer, a night watchman, and a plantation supervisor.

In 1960 Chris Strachwitz rediscovered Chatmon and recorded him; four of the songs recorded were included on the Arhoolie LP I have to paint my face. In 1966 he was rediscovered again by the blues enthusiast Ken Swerilas, who persuaded him to move to San Diego, where he began playing in clubs and became a local favorite. Soon he was performing around the country at folk festivals and clubs, gaining notoriety as one of the few surviving first-generation Mississippi bluesmen. He made his last professional appearance at the 1982 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival.

This according to “Chatmon, Sam” by Andrew Leach (Encyclopedia of the blues II [2006] p. 195); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Chatmon’s 120th birthday! A discography is here. Below, ca. 1978.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

David Bowie and Japanese style

david-bowie-1973

Japanese fashion, theater, and music played significant roles in David Bowie’s pioneering career.

The Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto devised some of Bowie’s most iconic stage outfits, and in the 1960s the singer studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, a UK performance artist who was influenced by kabuki theater with its exaggerated gestures, elaborate costumes and makeup, and onnagata actors—men playing female roles.

This training with Kemp inspired Bowie as he explored ideas of masculinity, exoticism, and alienation. The inspiration extended to the musical realm as well: on Moss garden from Heroes (1977) Bowie plays a Japanese koto; It’s no game (no. 1) from Scary monsters (and super creeps) (1980) features Japanese vocals; and the instrumental B-side Crystal Japan (1980) was released as a single in Japan and featured in a sake commercial.

This according to “David Bowie’s love affair with Japanese style” by Tessa Wong, Anna Jones, and Yuko Kato (BBC news 12 January 2016).

Today would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday! Above, Bowie models a Yamamoto design in 1973; below, It’s no game (no. 1).

BONUS: That sake ad.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Grace Bumbry, black Venus

grace-bumbry-as-venus

When Wieland Wagner engaged the 24-year-old Grace Bumbry for the role of Venus in the 1961 Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser he received hundreds of letters of protest, and the German press exploded with sensational headlines about the black intruder in the sacred Aryan shrine.

The neo-Nazi Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands called the appointment “a cultural disgrace”, and one correspondent asserted that “If Richard Wagner knew of this he would be turning in his grave.”

But Wieland Wagner stood by the artist who had been dubbed die schwarze Venus (the black Venus), saying that the role “must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted!”

Indeed, following the production’s first performance on 24 July a jubilant audience commanded 42 curtain calls during its 30-minute ovation, the most rousing demonstrations occurring during Bumbry’s bows.

This according to “Grace Bumbry: Modern diva” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 141–56).

Today is Bumbry’s 80th birthday! Above and below, the historic production.

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Filed under Opera, Performers, Romantic era

Patti Smith and rock heroics

patti-smith

From her time as a young performance poet in New York in the late 1960s to her current position as punk rock’s éminence grise, Patti Smith has foregrounded the image of the poet as privileged seer.

Smith’s romantic impulses can be viewed within the context of her activity in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church, the preeminent public face of the East Village poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Her complex negotiations between her understanding of the poet as visionary and the adamantly playful, diffuse, and collaborative aesthetic characterizing downtown New York’s poetic community fed into the development of her performative stance as proto-punk rock icon.

This according to “‘Nor did I socialise with their people’: Patti Smith, rock heroics and the poetics of sociability” by Daniel Kane (Popular music XXXI/1 [January 2012] pp. 105–23).

Today is Smith’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in the early 1970s; below, her iconic 1974 recording of Hey Joe.

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Filed under Literature, Performers, Popular music

Oscar Levant, composer

oscar-levant

Today Oscar Levant is widely remembered for his mordant wit, his virtuoso interpretations of George Gershwin’s piano music, and his cameo appearances in numerous films. Fewer people realize that he was also a highly regarded composer who had studied with Arnold Schoenberg.

Levant’s hero worship of Gershwin stunted his confidence as a songwriter and a classical composer, though one of his pop songs, Blame it on my youth, has become a standard. Colleagues including Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, and Virgil Thomson all considered him an immensely gifted composer.

This according to A talent for genius: The life and times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (New York: Villard, 1994; reprint Los Angeles: Silman-James, 1998).

Today would have been Levant’s 110th birthday! Below, Nat Cole’s classic recording of Blame it on my youth.

BONUS: The 1942 premiere of Levant’s piano concerto.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Performers, Popular music

Eddie Palmieri and La Perfecta

palmieri-la-perfecta

Eddie Palmieri recalled the early days of his band La Perfecta in 2013, on the eve of his acceptance of an NEA Jazz Masters award.

The year was 1961, and the group had scheduled a three-day recording session—but it turned out that the budget shrank each day, so the band had to follow suit. On the first day the horn section comprised four trumpets; on the second day Palmieri could afford only two trumpets and two less-expensive trombones; and on the third day he had to settle for a single trombone and a flute.

For a few months after the record was released, Palmieri barked in the street outside the small Midtown Manhattan club where La Perfecta was playing, trying to divert foot traffic from the nearby Palladium Ballroom where his more famous rivals were performing. “Not there, folks!” he remembers shouting, “Over here, folks!” But soon La Perfecta was hot, and Palmieri’s guerilla tactics paid off with a 90-day Palladium booking.

This according to “Eddie Palmieri: Rebellious perfection” by Giovanni Russonello (JazzTimes XLIII/1 [January–February 2013] pp. 28–33).

Today is Palmieri’s 80th birthday! Above, the group’s first album; below, a more recent incarnation of La Perfecta, still featuring a modest brass section and a flute.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music