Tag Archives: Performers

Leontyne Price arrives

leontyne-price-1961

On 28 January 1961 Langston Hughes wrote to a friend about having heard a black soprano the night before “busting the walls of the Metropolitan wide open.”

It was hyperbole that neared truth. Just days shy of her 34th birthday, Leontyne Price debuted before an audience whose standards and expectations were high; she lived up to them, and surpassed them beyond even her own imagination. At the final chord of Verdi’s Il trovatore the walls of the venerable institution vibrated with one of the most protracted and vociferous ovations in its history—nearly three-quarters of an hour—for the voice that Time magazine described as “like a bright banner unfurling.”

Price’s arrival at the pinnacle of American opera had a dual significance: She was one of the first American-trained singers to establish herself as a truly international star, and she continued, in grand style, the work of Marian Anderson as a trailblazer, barrier-breaker, and door-opener for black performers.

This according to “Leontyne Price: Prima donna assoluta” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 100–14).

Today is Price’s 90th birthday! Above and below, her Metropolitan Opera debut.

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Filed under Opera, Performers, Reception

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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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Stan Getz and bossa nova

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Stan Getz was already a successful jazz saxophone player when, in 1962, Charlie Byrd’s search for a horn with a human voice prompted him to record Antônio Carlos Jobim’s Desafinado.

The recording was such a surprise hit that Getz decided to pursue Brazilian music further, particularly examples of the new bossa nova genre. His subsequent recording of Jobim’s Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) became his biggest success, spearheading a brief but notable enthusiasm for Brazilian styles among international audiences. Getz’s breathy, smooth sound and the delicate floating effect that he created proved widely popular beyond the jazz world.

This according to “Getz, Stan” by Jeff Kaliss (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 247); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today would have been Getz’s 90th birthday! Above, with João Gilberto in the early 1960s; below, his signature numbers in 1983.

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Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

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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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