Christa Ludwig has been called “the Earth Mother of all singers”, and the designation is fitting in every possible way—the arresting beauty of the sound itself, the reassuring strength of her technique, and the intense expressiveness of her singing, wed to a disarming simplicity and directness that sets her apart from some of her famous contemporaries. That lack of pretentiousness is a hallmark of her offstage personality as well, for which she is adored by fans and colleagues alike.
As a teacher, Ludwig sets exactly the right tone by asserting herself firmly as the person in charge, yet with an inviting warmth and charm. She is not shy about bestowing compliments when warranted, but she is an exacting teacher, not reluctant to cut off a singer after two or three notes to correct an errant rendition.
In short, Christa Ludwig is everything that a professional singer should be, and the fact that she was able to sing for so long with such excellence is perhaps the highest tribute of all.
This according to “The listener’s gallery” by Gregory Berg (Journal of singing LXV/1 [September–October 2008] pp. 119–24).
Today is Ludwig’s 90th birthday! Above, in 2015; below, singing Mahler’s Urlicht.
Ranking among America’s most influential and versatile musical figures, Allen Toussaint excelled as a songwriter, arranger, session pianist, and producer. His influence extends across the popular music landscape; though he is most often associated with the music of his native New Orleans, he enjoyed success in R&B, jazz, country, blues, and pop. His piano playing blended the wealth of Crescent City styles, barrelhouse blues, marching band references, jazzy intervals, and sweeping octave leaps.
By the late 1950s Toussaint was already cranking out hits and frequently doubling as keyboard player and/or producer. In the 1960s two of his instrumentals became huge pop standards—Java for Al Hirt and Whipped cream for Herb Alpert. Glen Campbell’s version of his Southern nights was nominated for the Country Music Association Song of the Year award in 1977, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
This according to “Toussaint, Allen” by Ron Wynn (Encyclopedia of the blues II  pp. 1005–396); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Toussaint’s 80th birthday! Above, receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2013; below, his classic Yes we can can.
Ruth Brown’s recordings—including, just for starters, 5-10-15 hours, (Mama) He treats your daughter mean, and Oh what a dream—have come to define for generations of music lovers the epitome of 1950s-era R&B: elegant and swinging, yet with a sassy sexiness that proclaimed the freedom-seeking spirit of a new generation.
Generations of vocalists, extending into the present day, have cited her as a major musical role model. And they weren’t all women: Little Richard patterned his squeal on his hit Lucille after Brown’s squeal on (Mama) He treats your daughter mean three years earlier.
This according to “Ruth Brown” by David Whiteis (Living blues XXXVII/1:188 [February 2007] pp. 69–71).
Today would have been Brown’s 90th birthday! Above, performing in 2005; below, Little Richard’s muse in 1955.
In a 1995 interview, Palghat R. Raghu recalled how he became a disciple of the legendary Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer.
“I was born in Rangoon. My grandfather was a self-made musician and in the locality he was known as Rangoon Radhakrishna Iyer. I was fond of drumming on biscuit tins for rhythm. [A relative] who came to our house presented me with a small mṛdaṅgam. It was a slow progress.”
“[A friend] suggested that I should have the guidance of Palghat Mani Iyer. So we shifted to Palghat. But Mani Iyer did not accept me as a disciple at our first meeting. My grandfather told him beseechingly, ‘We want to entrust Raghu in your hands. The boy is eager to learn from you.’ There was no encouraging response from Mani Iyer.”
“Two or three days we visited his house expecting a favorable reply; but no word of acceptance from Mani Iyer. It was here I found the hand of God coming to my rescue. One day when we were waiting in Mani Iyer’s residence, a close friend of his came there with a vessel of halwa and gave a piece to me and told Mani Iyer ‘Mani, this boy plays exceedingly well. I have heard him.’ That settled it. Mani Iyer asked me to come every day for lessons.”
Quoted in “Challenges brought out his best” by S.V. Krishnamurthy, an article included in The Hindu speaks on music (Chennai: Kasturi & Sons, 1999, pp. 245–47).
Today would have been Palghat Raghu’s 90th birthday! Above and below, the master in his element.
Filed under Asia, Performers
Flamenco purists may carp at Paco de Lucía’s incorporation of classical, Afro-Cuban, and jazz elements into his music, but no one can deny his prodigious knowledge of flamenco’s traditions or his ability to perform it like no other guitarist before him.
He insisted that all of his musical explorations and innovations are based on a solid commitment to flamenco tradition. “Everything I have heard has influenced me as a musician. But I have been careful about putting it in the music—my flamenco is not a fusion. I have always been careful that it doesn’t lose the essence and the roots and the traditions of flamenco. I have incorporated other styles, but they have not altered the philosophy of my music.”
This according to “Flamenco buena: Paco de Lucia’s guitar sings” by Felix Contreras (JazzTimes XXXIV/6 [July–August 2004] p. 44).
Today would have been Paco de Lucía’s 70th birthday! Below, performing in Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, flamenco (2010).
Critics, historians, musicians, and jazz enthusiasts still debate the identity of the heir to John Coltrane’s musical throne; but his widow, Alice Coltrane, who performed with him from 1966 until his death in 1967, was the one artist who continued his experiments in marrying spirituality with jazz and furthered his explorations of new compositional approaches by introducing African, Indian, and Middle Eastern influences into the genre.
She was the first to develop a jazz harp sound into something more than a curiosity, and her use of non-Western instruments predated similar trends in other genres. The albums that she recorded after her husband’s death serve as documentation of her development as an innovator, and offer an alternative reading of the history and evolution of the free jazz or avant-garde movement.
This according to “Freedom is a constant struggle: Alice Coltrane and the redefining of the jazz avant-garde” by Tammy L. Kernodle, an essay included in John Coltrane and black America’s quest for freedom: Spirituality and the music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 73–98).
Today would have been Alice Coltrane’s 80th birthday! Above, performing in 2006; below, the title track from her last album, Translinear light.
In an interview, John Lee Hooker described the genesis of his 1961 hit Boom boom:
“I used to play at this place called the Apex Bar in Detroit. There was a young lady there named Luilla, she was a bartender there. I would come in there at night and I’d never be on time. Every night the band would beat me there; sometimes they’d be on the bandstand playing by the time I got there. Whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say ‘Boom boom, you’re late again.’ It dawned on me that that was a good name for a song. Then one night she said, “Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song but she didn’t know it.”
“I took that thing and I hummed it all the way home from the bar. At night I went to bed and I was still thinking of it. I got up the next day and put one and one together, two and two together, trying to piece it out—taking things out, putting things in. I finally got it down right, got it together, got it down in my head. Then I went and sang it, and everybody went, Wow!”
“About two months later I recorded it, and the record shot straight to the top. That barmaid felt pretty good. She went around telling everybody ‘I got John Lee to write that song.’ I gave her some bread for it, too, so she was pretty happy.”
Quoted in Working musicians: Defining moments from the road, the studio, and the stage by Bruce Pollock (New York: HarperEntertainment, 2002, pp. 290–91).
According to most sources, today is Hooker’s 100th birthday! Above, recording in 1960, a year before Boom boom; below, a classic performance.
In an interview, Maddy Prior recalled her early impressions of English traditional music.
“We did a bit at school and as a result I didn’t like it very much,” she says, “but it was cool in my adolescence to sing American folk songs and get into Bob Dylan. From that I started going to folk clubs.”
“I drove Reverend Gary Davis around for a month in 1966. That was a character forming experience! Then I met this American couple and drove them around for a year. They told me to stop singing American folk songs, because they said I was rubbish at it!”
“They had lots of tapes of English folk music and I started to listen to them, reluctantly at first, I might add. I found the songs old and boring. But I listened to the tapes again, and again, and eventually I found ‘Oh I like that song’, ‘Oh I like that one too’. You get your ear in, that’s what you have to do with any music.”
Quoted in “Please to see the folk-rock queen” by Kernan Andrews (Galway advertiser 8 May 2014).
Today is Prior’s 70th birthday! Above, at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in 2016; below, singing Steeleye Span’s 1975 hit All around my hat in 2004.
BONUS: The female drummer in 1971, when the Steeleye Span lineup included the legendary Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings.
In an interview, Ian Anderson discussed the songs on his third solo album, The secret language of birds.
“I like singing songs that put people in a landscape. I have a picture in my head for each song that I write, and it’s a framed, still image. My early training as a painter and drafter, I think, produced in me a way of writing music and lyrics that illustrate visual ideas.”
“I try to bring some maturity to the thing I’ve been doing for most of my career, writing songs that tell people a story, not in the temporal sense, but a story they make up to fit the picture I suggest to them.”
“It’s like sending people a postcard. You’re giving them a little flavor of where you are and what you feel and how you’re getting on. But it can only be just that, a little snapshot. They have to do some of the work to imagine the bigger picture.”
This according to “Passion plays: Ian Anderson’s three decades of visual songwriting with Jethro Tull” by Steve Boisson (Acoustic guitar XI/5:95 [November 2000] pp. 86–97).
Today is Anderson’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2000, the year the album was released; below, the album’s title track.