Category Archives: Performers

Prince’s personae

Few musicians have been as acutely conscious of their images as Prince, or as dedicated to presenting themselves with such teasing complexity.

Prince transformed his visual identity with each album he released. The pompadoured rock god of Purple rain was followed by the beatific flower child of Around the world in a day and the louche sensualist of Parade. Each record carefully maintained its own distinctive palette, most obviously with Purple rain, but also with the peach-and-black color scheme of Sign o’ the times and the black, white, and red of Lovesexy.

The cover of one of his earliest albums, Dirty mind (1980), depicted a sexually charged, ambiguously gendered Prince, complete with a thong and thigh-high boots. He continued to blur boundaries between male and female, straight and gay, chaste and libidinous, through much of his career.

This according to “How Prince invented himself. Over and over.” by Ekow Eshun (The New York times 3 November 2017).

Today would have been Prince’s 60th birthday! Above, his 2016 Piano & a Microphone Tour, shortly before his death; below, performing in 1984.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music

Chu Chin Chow and Orientalism

Oscar Asche’s Chu Chin Chow was the most popular musical in Britain during World War I, playing 2,235 performances over almost five years. Much of its success was due to the era’s fascination with the Orient, and it contained accessible music by Frederic Norton that generally only hinted at exoticism.

Chu Chin Chow continued a tradition of Orientalist musical entertainments, perhaps most notably Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The legacy continues in the 21st century, for example in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Bombay dreams.

This according to “Chu Chin Chow and Orientalist musical theatre in Britain during the First World War by William A. Everett, an essay included in Music and Orientalism in the British Empire, 1780s to 1940s: Portrayal of the East (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, pp. 277–96).

Above, an autographed postcard depicting Asche in the original production; below, the show’s signature song.

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Filed under Dramatic arts, Performers

Gustav Leonhardt in the 1960s

In the 1960s Gustav Leonhardt found himself transformed from a locally successful Dutch harpsichordist into a global phenomenon. Ironically, Leonhardt, an advocate for historical performance and building preservation, achieved critical and commercial success during an era marked by the rhetoric of social protest, renewal, and technological progress.

Leonhardt’s recordings demonstrate an authenticist stance, contrasting with the Romantic subjectivity of earlier Bach interpreters and the flamboyant showmanship of competing harpsichordists. Complementing this positioning were Leonhardt’s austere performance in Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach (above), his advocacy for historical instruments, and his uncompromising repertoire choices.

To a conservative older generation, Leonhardt represented sobriety and a link to the past. Nonetheless, Leonhardt’s staid persona had broader appeal: an unlikely guru, he attracted flocks of devotees. Younger musicians, inspired by his speech-like harpsichord articulation and use of reduced performing forces, viewed his performances as anti-mainstream protest music—despite Leonhardt’s own self-consciously apolitical stance.

Moreover, the antiquity of the harpsichord and historical instruments complemented concurrent interests in craftsmanship, whole foods, and authenticity; yet early music’s popularity was dependent upon technological mediation, especially high-fidelity recordings. Leonhardt thus emerges as a complex figure whose appeal transcended generational boundaries and bridged technological mediums.

This according to “The grand guru of Baroque music: Leonhardt’s antiquarianism in the progressivist 1960s” by Kailan Ruth Rubinoff (Early music XLII/1 [February 2014] pp. 23–35).

Today would have been Gustav Leonhardt’s 90th birthday! Below, performing in 1966.

BONUS: The official trailer for Chronik:

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Filed under Baroque era, Performers

Bill Robinson taps past Jim Crow

During the Great Depression Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple made a number of films together in which narratives depict an America where black people are happy slaves or docile servants, Civil War (even southern) soldiers are noble Americans, and voracious capitalists are kindly old men. But within these minstrel tropes and origin stories designed for uplift, the films challenge regressive ideologies through Robinson and Temple’s incendiary dance partnership.

For example, while the stair dance in The little colonel is part of the story, it is bracketed as a time outside the movie’s narrative flow. This thrusts the dance through the fixity of Jim Crow social constructs to reveal them as constructs, demonstrating the layered and molten nature of race and gender, and offering moviegoers a vision of the sociological and existential structures of U.S. society reimagined.

This according to “Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple tap past Jim Crow” by Anne Murphy, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of screendance studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 731–47).

Today is Robinson’s 140th birthday! Above and below, the celebrated stair dance.

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Filed under Black studies, Dance, Performers

Balasaraswati and bharata nāṭyam

T. Balasaraswati (1918–84), a dancer and musician from southern India, became recognized worldwide as one of the great performing artists of the twentieth century. In India she was a legend in her own time, acclaimed before she was 30 years old as the greatest living dancer of traditional bharata nāṭyam.

Balasaraswati was a passionate revolutionary, an entirely modern artist whose impact was proclaimed by some of the most prominent figures in contemporary dance in India and the West. Her art and life defined the heart of a tradition, and her life story offers an extraordinary view of the enigmatic matrilineal devadāsī community and traditional artistic practice from which modern South Indian dance styles have emerged.

This according to Balasaraswati: Her art and life by Douglas M. Knight (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2010).

Today is Balasaraswati’s 100th birthday! Below, a 30-minute film about her by Satyajit Ray.

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Filed under Asia, Dance, Performers

Blind Willie McTell’s legacy

The Atlanta bluesman William Samuel McTier, who performed and recorded as Blind Willie McTell, is known today for his iconic songs and Piedmont fingerpicking 12-string guitar playing.

When he died in 1959 he passed like a vague shadow, missed only by a few friends, family members, and some scattered blues fans, his music consigned to one of the dustier back shelves of Southern Americana. But that same year the renowned folklorist Samuel Charters published his Country blues, with passages that raised McTell to the status of blues master. In the years since he has risen from his obscurity in stunning profile, as enduring as the vibrant music he left behind.

This according to “Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta’s 12-string minstrel for all seasons” by David Fulmer (Blues access 11 [fall 1992] pp. 30–35).

Today is Blind Willie McTell’s 120th birthday! Below, his much-covered Statesboro blues.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan

As a small child, Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan proved able to reproduce songs after hearing them once, and she could recognize individual rāgas when she was three years old.

As word of this talented child spread, a neighbor arranged for her to study Karnatak music. She gave her first full-length concert when she was 11; the next year she performed on All India Radio, and soon she had a contract for regular broadcasts.

While she enjoyed a successful career, she never pushed for stardom—she was content to earn the respect of her colleagues and maintain an unstressful schedule as a performer and teacher. One of the pioneering career women in Karnatak music, she also demonstrated the possibility of leading a full family life at the same time.

This according to “Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan: A lifetime of music” by Sriram Venkatakrishnan (Sruti 266 [November 2006] pp. 33–45).

Today would have been Ananthalakshmi Sadagopan’s 90th birthday! Below, a recording from her heyday.

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Filed under Asia, Performers

Lionel Hampton and the Sanctified Church

Some jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Lionel Hampton’s musicianship criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players or getting the audience to clap along.

“I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the hand-clapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience” he explained in a 1987 interview.

“When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church—guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums—and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”

This according to “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002] pp. 1, 35).

Today is Hampton’s 110th birthday! Below, performing Flying home, which is widely cited as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Lily Pons arrives

Writing in 1955, a colleague recalled Lily Pons’s 1931 Metropolitan Opera debut:

“If all goes well on the first night of a new career in America, ‘a new Pope has been chosen’, as an old saying goes. Lily was a success and remained one.”

“In Lucia, though her age was something on the order of 30, she looked like a teenager. It was rumored that she was only 18; she was so dainty, petite, and graceful that everyone was willing to believe it.”

“For the first time in history a French coloratura had conquered America, and the novelty of it seemed to please everyone. Lily became their favorite toy, their baby doll, replete with Jaguars, Siamese cats, or Tibetan dogs with jeweled leashes accompanying her everywhere, like the descendant of some Grand Lama.”

This according to “Coloraturas at the Metropolitan” by Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, reprinted in Lily Pons: A centennial portrait (Portland: Amadeus, 1999, pp. 38–45).

Today is Pons’s 120th birthday! Above, costumed for Lakmé, with a friend; below, performing that opera’s Où va la jeune Hindoue? (popularly known as Bell song), one of Pons’s signature arias.

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Filed under Opera, Performers, Romantic era

Paul Robeson’s activism

Throughout his performing career Paul Robeson was fashioning an activist cultural theory to help to liberate his people and, increasingly, to support the cause of persecuted people everywhere.

His decision to sing the traditional songs of cultures in addition to his own—including songs in Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian—reflected his deepening and expanding identification with oppressed humanity irrespective of color.

This according to “‘I want to be African’: Paul Robeson and the ends of nationalist theory and practice, 1914–1945” by Sterling Stuckey (Massachusetts review XVII/1 [spring 1976] pp. 81–138; reprinted in Going through the storm: The influence of African American art in history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 187–227).

Today is Robeson’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer, actor, and activist in 1942; below, singing Go down Moses, a classic African American spiritual—a genre that Robeson considered one of the finest examples of black artistic expression.

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Filed under Black studies, Performers, Politics