Tag Archives: Performers

Talking Heads and “Remain in light”

 

On their first three albums, Talking Heads made anxious, self-aware art-punk with enough pop appeal to notch a couple of minor hits and edge toward the mainstream. Their landmark fourth album, Remain in light, was a radical departure that nevertheless felt like a continuation of and improvement on everything that had come before.

The album was born in a recording studio, where the group arrived song-less and ready to jam. This communal approach was curious, given that they had typically brought in nearly finished compositions. The producer, Brian Eno, constructed the tracks by looping rhythmic sections and layering instrumentation—a method that initially left the group’s frontman, David Byrne, unsure of how or what to sing.

Written and recorded mostly after the instrumentalists left the studio, Byrne’s songs have a freeform, impressionistic, cut-and-paste quality; but even so, Remain in light is a record with very recognizable—and very Talking Heads—themes of alienation and the search for identity.

This according to “Talking Heads’ Remain in light at 35” by Kenneth Partridge (Billboard 8 October 2015; RILM Abstracts 2015-85008).

Remain in light was released 40 years ago today! Below, the full album.

Comments Off on Talking Heads and “Remain in light”

Filed under Performers, Popular music

Ray Charles and “What’d I say”

 

In an interview, Ray Charles recalled the genesis of his 1959 hit What’d I say:

We happened to be playing one of my last dances, somewhere in the Midwest, and I had another 12 minutes to kill before the set closed. A typical gig of that kind lasted four hours, including a 30-minute intermission. It was nearly 1 a.m., I remember, and we had played our whole book. There was nothing left that I could think of, so I finally said to the band and The Raeletts, “Listen, I’m going to fool around, so y’all just follow me.”

So I began noodling—just a little riff that floated into my head. It felt good and I kept going. One thing led to another and I found myself singing and wanting the girls to repeat after me. So I told ‘em “Now.”

Then I could feel the whole room bouncing and shaking and carrying on something fierce. So I kept the thing going, tightening it up a little here, adding a dash of Latin rhythm there. When I got through, folks came up and asked where they could buy the record. “Áin’t no record,” I said, “just something I made up to kill a little time.”

The next night I started fooling with it again, adding a few more lyrics and refining the riffs for the band. I did that for several straight evenings until the song froze into place. And each time I sang it, the reaction was wild.

Quoted in Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ own story by David Ritz (New York: Dial, 1978; RILM Abstracts 1978-5376).

Today would have been Ray Charles’s 90th birthday! Above, the album cover (note the keyboard and hands reflected in his glasses); below, the recording itself.

BONUS: The scene as it was recreated in the 2004 film Ray.

Comments Off on Ray Charles and “What’d I say”

Filed under Performers, Popular music

Rosie Flores and “Working girl’s guitar”

 

In an interview, Rosie Flores discussed the title cut of her 2012 album Working girl’s guitar:

There’s a friend of mine who does, well, everything. He does bodywork, he’s written books on rolfing, how to play the banjo, and how to play the upright bass. His name is Ritchie Mintz.

I went to him a couple years ago and said, “You know, I’ve got too many guitars, and I need to come up with some money. Are you interested in maybe getting one of my Taylors?” I brought it over, he looked at it, turned it over and said, “Man, this is a working girl’s guitar! Look at all the scars on it. This has been on some airplanes and trucks and cars, hasn’t it?” “Yep, it’s been around!” I said.

And so that night he bought the guitar. He called me up the next day and said, “Rosie, you’re not going to believe this, but your guitar wrote a song for you.” I said, “For me? My guitar wrote a song for me?” And he went, “Yep!” So I came over and listened to it, and was just blown away. I said, “That is such a cool song, Ritchie!” So I just turned up the distortion and the overdrive pedal and went to town on that riff and just had a great time with that.

Quoted in “Guitar girl’d: Interview with Rosie Flores on the release of Working girl’s guitar” by Laura B. Whitmore (Guitar world 25 October 2012; RILM Abstracts 2012-45948).

Today is Flores’s 70th birthday! Above, Flores at the 67th Annual Peabody Awards in 2008; below, a live performance of the song.

Comments Off on Rosie Flores and “Working girl’s guitar”

Filed under Performers, Popular music

Sonny Rollins and thematic improvisation

 

Sonny Rollins’s extensive use of improvised thematic development in his 1956 recording of Blue 7 marked a new level of musical evolution for jazz.

Jazz improvisatory procedures may be divided into two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: paraphrase and chorus improvisation. The former consists mostly of an embellishment or ornamentation technique, while the latter suggests that the soloist has departed completely from a given theme or melody and is improvising freely on nothing but a chord structure.

Most improvisation in the modern jazz era belongs to the second category, and Rollins’s recording is a landmark for maintaining thematic and structural unity in this type of playing.

This according to “Sonny Rollins and the challenge of thematic improvisation” by Gunther Schuller; this foundational work of jazz analysis from 1958 is reprinted in Keeping time: Readings in jazz history (New York: Oxford University Press 2015 193–202; RILM Abstracts 2015-155).

Today is Rollins’s 90th birthday! Above, the artist around the time of the recording; below, the recording itself.

Comments Off on Sonny Rollins and thematic improvisation

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

“Parker’s mood” redux

 

Charlie Parker’s three improvisatory choruses in Parker’s mood (1948) can be viewed as one statement; the first is introductory, the second climactic, and the third provides a summary by repeating previous material.

Analyzed as a Schenkerian series of layers, the piece progresses in complexity from the background to the foreground. Parker’s palette of resources includes the blues scale, stock blues melodic figures, bebop-style scale runs, arpeggiated figures derived from substitute progressions, idiosyncratic articulation, and a historic tradition of improvisation.

This according to “Parker’s mood revisited” by Kwatei Jones-Quartey (Annual review of jazz studies X [1999] 221–35; RILM Abstracts 1999-13483.

Today is Charlier Parker’s 100th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

Comments Off on “Parker’s mood” redux

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Zao and “champagne socialism”

 

 

In the mid-1980s Congo-Brazzaville was chafing under the heel of a military regime that fed its impoverished people irrelevant political slogans while the elite dined on champagne and caviar. Zao, a humorous band led by Casimir Zoba, a former schoolteacher in a comical pseudo-military uniform singing in an extravagant mixture of Senegalese French and local slang, seemed to pose no real threat to the authorities.

But Zoba was no ordinary humorist or village idiot, and underneath his buffoonish image was a hard-edged political and social critic. While Zao’s music was tolerated as comic relief, the group delivered sharp critiques of bureaucracy, corruption, gender relations, and abuse of power in the “champagne socialism” of the military dictatorship.

This according to “Couching political criticism in humor: The case of musical parodies of the military in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville” by Lyombe S. Eko, an essay included in Music and messaging in the African political arena (Hershey: IGI Global, 2019, 87–107; RILM Abstracts 2019-16663).

Below, Ancien combattant, Zao’s most popular song, and a case study in the article.

Comments Off on Zao and “champagne socialism”

Filed under Humor, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Audra McDonald and Lady Day

 

In an interview, Audra McDonald discussed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grille, for which she won the Best Actress in a Play Tony Award in 2014.

“It’s about a woman trying to get through a concert performance, which I know something about, and she’s doing it at a time when her liver was pickled and she was still doing heroin regularly.”

“I might have been a little judgmental about Billie Holiday early on in my life, but what I’ve come to admire most about her—and what is fascinating in this show—is that there is never any self-pity. She’s almost laughing at how horrible her life has been. I don’t think she sees herself as a victim. And she feels an incredible connection to her music—she can’t sing a song if she doesn’t have some emotional connection to it, which I really understand.”

“One wonderful thing for me is there are tons of recordings of Billie that I’ve been listening to and watching, even audio of her talking about certain songs, so I have a lot to draw on.”

Quoted in “Audra McDonald to return to Broadway as Billie Holiday” by Patrick Healey (The New York times 26 February 2014; RILM Abstracts 2014-89300).

Today is McDonald’s 50th birthday! Below, excerpts from her Tony Awards performance.

Comments Off on Audra McDonald and Lady Day

Filed under Dramatic arts, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music

Howlin’ Wolf and “Back door man”

 

In June 1960, after nine years of recording and over two decades of touring and performing, Howlin’ Wolf and some trusted sidemen entered Chess Studios in Chicago to cut three sides. Wolf was 50 years old and an established act; yet everything about the session’s results, and particularly the song Back door man, seems elusive and interstitial.

Jim Crow racial segregation—at least one of the many meanings of the song’s title—was then both legally discredited and locally practiced, in the North as well as the South. Minimal, sinister, and edgy, fueled by images of violence, betrayal, and polymorphous sexual bravado, structured throughout by riddles and dialectical reversals, Back door man is a sort of historical puzzle, fusing Jim Crow sound, Jim Crow sex, and Jim Crow space; it implies as well a theory of how sound and subject formation, and subject formation through sound, arise out of Jim Crow violence.

This according to “Back door man: Howlin’ Wolf and the sound of Jim Crow” by Eric Lott (American quarterly LXIII/3 [September 2011] 697–710; RILM Abstracts 2011-27928).

Today is Howlin’ Wolf’s 110th birthday! Below, the recording in question.

Comments Off on Howlin’ Wolf and “Back door man”

Filed under Black studies, Jazz and blues, Performers

T-bone Walker’s legacy

 

One of the most important and enduring icons of blues history, the charismatic T-Bone Walker radically transformed the music with a combination of instrumental virtuosity and stylistic and technical innovation throughout a career of unusual longevity and legendary significance.

Walker invented both the electric blues guitar concept and the sound identified with it. Incorporating jazz changes with blues innovations of his own design, he created a new guitar sound with a horn-like richness that was emulated by guitarists everywhere, but especially in his home state. Everybody that picked up a guitar in Texas wanted to sound like T-Bone, and his onstage acrobatics, complete with signature splits, were directly responsible for similarly extroverted stage antics by later performers such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix.

This according to “Walker, T-Bone” by Michael Point (Encyclopedia of the blues, 2006); this encyclopedia is one of many resources included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is T-bone Walker’s 110th birthday! Above, T-Bone Walker (1972) by Heinrich Klaffs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Below, a performance from 1966.

BONUS: Walker’s signature hit Stormy Monday.

Comments Off on T-bone Walker’s legacy

Filed under Jazz and blues, Performers

Stevie Wonder’s turning point

 

Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary burst of productivity after his 21st birthday in 1971—a time now celebrated as his “classic period”—was a direct result of his contractual maneuvers with Motown Records.

On his 21st birthday, when he was no longer a minor, Wonder gained access to 10 years’ worth of royalties that had been accruing in a trust set up for him when he’d signed his first contract, at age 11.

He also allowed his Motown contract to expire at that moment, meaning that one of pop music’s hottest stars was now both financially secure and a free agent. If Motown wanted to keep him, it would require a deal unlike any the label had previously granted.

Wonder negotiated a new contract with Motown that granted him full artistic control over his music, his own publishing company, and an unprecedented royalty rate. It was a revolutionary deal that initiated one of the greatest sustained runs of creativity in the history of popular music.

This according to “The greatest creative run in the history of popular music” by Jack Hamilton (Slate 19 December 2016; RILM Abstracts 2016-48645).

Today is Stevie Wonder’s 70th birthday! Above, in his turning point year; below, Superstition, his #1 hit from 1972.

BONUS: Tearing the roof off Sesame Street in 1973.

Comments Off on Stevie Wonder’s turning point

Filed under Performers, Popular music