Tag Archives: Birthdays

Kurt Cobain’s idealism

MTV Unplugged: Nirvana

While Kurt Cobain openly disdained certain elements of his audience, he liked the idea of bending their minds to his left-leaning convictions.

“I wanted to fool people at first” he said in an interview. “I wanted people to think that we were no different than Guns n’ Roses. Because that way they would listen to the music first, accept us, and then maybe start listening to a few things that we had to say.” When he began letting loose with carefully aimed condemnations of racism, sexism, and homophobia, he was pleased to discover that high schools had become divided between Nirvana kids and Guns n’ Roses kids.

This according to “Generation exit” by Alex Ross (The New Yorker 25 April 1994, pp. 102–06).

Today would have been Cobain’s 50th birthday! Below, performing in 1992.

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Eubie Blake’s second act

Eubie Blake F26

eubieblakeEubie Blake enjoyed a rewarding career in the 1910s and 1920s with his lifelong friend and lyricist Noble Sissle, both as the duo Sissle and Blake, the most successful black act of their time, and as songwriters for landmark musicals—most notably Shuffle along (1921), which included their most enduring number, I’m just wild about Harry.

Blake continued to compose songs for revues through the 1930s and 1940s, although none of his ventures reached the level of success that he experienced in the 1920s. But the ragtime revival of the 1950s kindled new interest in his talents, and he began playing and composing ragtime pieces.

In 1969 Columbia issued a two-LP set, The 86 years of Eubie Blake, featuring both his ragtime and his show music (along with a reunion with Sissle), which helped to renew interest in his work. During the last decades of his life Blake had his own record label, and his songs returned to Broadway in the anthology revue Eubie! (1978), which ran for 439 performances. The show’s namesake attended several times and performed a few songs on opening night.

This according to “Eubie Blake” by David A. Jasen, an article in Tin Pan Alley: An encyclopedia of the golden age of American song (New York: Routledge, 2012, pp. 47–48); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Blake’s 130th birthday! Below, performing in 1972.

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Schubert and Das Dreimäderlhaus

dreimaderlhaus

The operetta Das Dreimäderlhaus (1916) was based on Schwammerl (Mushroom, one of Schubert’s nicknames), a novel about Franz Schubert by Rudolf Hans Bartsch; the music incorporated numerous melodies by the composer. U.S. and U.K. adaptations followed: Blossom time (1921) and Lilac time (1922), respectively.

Unsurprisingly, the work was excoriated by critics, scholars, and performers for its defilement of Schubert’s melodies, spurious plot lines, and superficial, misleading, and sentimentalized portrayal of the composer’s character. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau derided it as “Schubert steeped in kitsch”, while Maurice J.E. Brown declared that “the popularity of this pastiche has done Schubert more harm than good.”

Audiences, however, adored it; the operetta passed its 1000th Berlin performance in 1918, and its 1100th Viennese one in 1927.

This according to “Of mushrooms and lilac blossom” by Richard Morris (The Schubertian 27 [December 1999] pp. 6–14; 28 [March 2000] pp. 15–18).

Today is Schubert’s 220th birthday! Above, a poster for the 1958 film version starring Karlheinz Böhm; below, excerpts from a 2016 production by Bühne Baden.

BONUS: Selections from Sigmund Romberg’s score for Blossom time; the show’s publicity breathlessly promised, among other attractions, “32 Schubert themes in eight bars.”

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Artur Rubinstein’s big break

arthur_rubinstein_1906

In 1897, when Artur Rubinstein was ten years old, his mother Felicja traveled with him from their home in Łódź to Berlin, armed with dozens of letters of introduction. After a dreary week of slogging unsuccessfully through the rain, Felicja played her last card when she secured a meeting for Artur with Joseph Joachim, the director of the Hochschule für Musik.

joseph-joachimJoachim (inset) was known to take a dim view of prodigies due to his own difficulties as one, but when Rubinstein played Mozart’s rondo in A minor, K. 511, to his “evident satisfaction” he rewarded the boy with an entire bar of Lindt’s bittersweet chocolate.

He also rewarded him with one of the most successful musical careers of the twentieth century, because on the basis of that brief audition Joachim decided that Rubinstein had the makings of an outstanding pianist, and he told the astonished Felicja that he would personally undertake the supervision of her son’s musical and general education.

This according to Rubinstein: A life by Harvey Sachs (New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1995, pp. 22–24).

Today is Rubinstein’s 130th birthday! Above, Rubinstein in 1906; below, performing in Moscow in 1964.

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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”.

eartha_kitt_catwoman_batman_1967
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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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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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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(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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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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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