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(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.

Baloons and the capital building, trademarks of the Flaming Lips and Austin City Limits.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”

“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”

The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.

“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”

The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.

The Hag on ACL.

“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.

“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.

“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”

Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.

“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”

For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

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(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)

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(Above: Blues guitarist Freddie King was one of several King artists to get pinched when James Brown’s career started taking off.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Jon Fox Hartley is the author of the book “King of the Queen City” about King Records in Cincinnati. From 1943 to 1968, King was the home of James Brown, Freddie King, Grandpa Jones and countless other musicians. While other independent labels of the time concentrated on one type of music, King founder Syd Nathan wanted to produce “music for the little man” in all genres.

Fox , a native of Dayton, Ohio who now lives in California, recently took the time to speak with The Daily Record over the phone.

In the book, you make the case for several forgotten artists, such as Henry Glover, Wynonie Harris, Roy Brown and the Dominoes. These pioneers made important contributions to music, but have been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why do you think they have been overlooked and haven’t received the recognition they deserve?

I think the first reason is that they’re all dead and have been for several years. Because of that, there’s no one to go to award shows and remind people they haven’t been elected. Also, because of the haphazard status of King reissues, records on King weren’t as available and presented as well as those on other labels. Finally, while all of these artists had pop success, they weren’t pop artist with large audiences. They were niche artists.

I would think that Wynonie Harris has a pretty good shot at getting in (the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Henry Glover’s daughter has talked to me about putting together some kind of campaign to get Henry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Country Music Hall of Fame.

Jon Hartley Fox

In the book you also make the case for “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as the first rock and roll song. Why do you believe “Good Rockin’” that title over “Rocket 88”? How does acknowledging “Good Rockin’,” which was recorded in 1948, change our perspective of the landscape of early rock and roll?

It’s funny, because I made this argument in the book but hadn’t thought I’d have to explain or defend it. Right before the book came out, my wife says “You know you’re going to have to talk about that.” And she was right, because everyone has asked.

It’s a backwards process. You start with a song acknowledged as rock and roll, like “Rocket 88.” Then you break down the attributes that make it rock as opposed to jump blues or country. There’s a certain beat, a certain attitude and the subject matter of the lyrics aimed at kids. There’s also the aggressive, hyper-charged vocals.  Once you have those attributes of what makes a song rock and roll, you can apply them to other songs and see if they measure up.

For me, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” makes a strong case. It was the first post-war song to use “rockin’” in the sense of having a good time. “We’re going to party tonight.” It was also one of the first songs to be bought and listened to by white teenagers. The trend crested in the ‘50s, but as early as late ‘40s, white kids were buying these songs and listening to them on the radio.

If you take “Good Rockin’ Tonight” as the first rock and roll song over something by Bill Haley and the Comets or Elvis Presley or Jackie Brenston, it changes our understanding that rock and roll was something brand new that popped on the scene fully formed. It coincides with the evolution of a lot of things reflected in the music people in the upper South and Midwest heard on radio stations out of Memphis and Nashville. You’d hear country, gospel, jump blues, R&B and country boogie on those stations. Then you realize everything that went into rock and roll wasn’t a market creation so much as young people coming of age hearing the music of the ‘40s and synthesizing them.

Describe King founder Syd Nathan. What kind of a person was he? How did he live? How did his personality compare to other independent label owners of the time like, say, Leonard Chess or Berry Gordy?

When I talked to people about Syd Nathan, the word that invariably came up was “character,” as in He was a real character. He was kind of like someone out of a short story. He was tight with a penny, but generous sometimes. He was ahead of the race line culturally and politically, but could tell the crudest racist joke. He was a fun guy but abusive and could push people to the brink of mayhem.

A lot of people got mad at Syd Nathan, but few stayed mad at him. He was gregarious and loved to be surrounded by people. He was the guy holding court in the corner booth at the bar.

In talking to people who worked for and knew Syd Nathan, everyone respected him. Everyone had Syd stories. It is rare to find anybody who will badmouth Syd Nathan these days. I think that’s partly out of nostalgia, but I also think on a day-to-day basis he was probably a real good guy.

There are several stories about Syd’s anger, but I think he used those temper tantrums in the studio to get results out of people. He was trying to get the artist fired up. If he thought there was a spark missing from the performance, he would pick a fight to get the artist fired up. I think these fights were calculated, because Syd never held a grudge and no one stayed mad.

Compared to Leonard Chess or Berry Gordy, Syd Nathan was certainly more expansive musically than either man. He didn’t want to limit himself to one style of music; he wanted to try it all.

I really don’t know this for sure, but I think Syd was probably a little more progressive on race matters than Leonard Chess. I often thought of this while researching the book. At King, Henry Glover would write songs, play on sessions and produce. He was a highly valued vice president of the company. At Chess, Willie Dixon filled many of the same roles, but his day job was as a janitor at Chess.

I had long heard a rumor that during World War II Nathan had 30 or 40 Japanese-Americans working for him. I thought that was unusual because on the West Coast these people were being sent to internment camps.

Well I asked somebody who knew Syd at a book signing. He told me Syd was working with a religious political action group trying to relocate people about to be interred. Syd accepted about 30 to 40 families. They were American citizens, but if they’d stayed at home they would have been locked up. Syd moved them all to Cincinnati where they lived in an apartment complex on the bus line so they could come in to King and work each day.

Most labels find one niche and exploit it. Why do you think King was so successful in so many varied genres?

I think they were successful because they wanted to be and weren’t afraid to try. Syd realized he could make more money if he didn’t specialize in one kind of music, but did a lot of different things. Before the days of record stores, only two or three shops in a town would sell records back in the corner. They’d sell what they got from wherever. Syd saw that specializing was leaving money on the table so if they wanted gospel, he had gospel records for them. Same thing for blues, country, R&B, whatever.

Syd also realized that the song sold the record more than the style or performer. If he thought a song was good, he’d record it in several different styles. Once in a while he was right, and the same song was a hit on the country and R&B charts by different performers.

Once the major labels smelled money and figured out what King and other independent labels were doing they would swoop in and take it away. Syd knew the more diverse he could make King the more control he would have and the more success was guaranteed.

One often hears of a hit record ruining a company, like the Beatles and Vee-Jay. How was King able to sustain the massive popularity of James Brown? Did Brown’s success come at the price of other artists on the label?

To answer the last part first, yeah, Brown sometimes hurt other artists. Freddie King was very vocal about why he left King. One of his reasons was that all the promotional muscle and ad money went to James Brown. There were certainly others who felt his success came at their expense.

King built a huge infrastructure in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They had their own pressing plant and printing facilities to make covers; the studio was in house. The infrastructure took a certain amount of volume to make it profitable.

Right about the time they got it perfected in the mid-‘50s, business started to fall off. But just as the market started to decrease, along comes James Brown. Here was an infrastructure dedicated to James Brown, because frankly there weren’t many other artists left.

Had James’ success hit at a busier time, he might have swamped them. Other labels might not have been able to keep up with demand or gotten paid. That wasn’t a factor at King because they controlled their pressing. If they needed 100,000 James Brown records shipped out, they could get it done. They didn’t have to stand in line like other labels did.

In one of the last chapters you discuss the difficulties King supporters have faced in trying to get the label complex the landmark recognition it deserves. Other than the unveiling of a plaque in 2008, why has King yet to be recognized by the city of Cincinnati?

Again, I think this is in part because the principals are all dead or moved away a long time ago. There’s no real physical presence. The ice house complex (the former King building) is an ugly building in an industrial facility in a funky part of town. With the label’s move to Nashville in the ‘70s, there’s nothing to memorialize. About the only thing to do is put something on the building, and now they’ve got that done.

People have been trying for years to get something done with the old facility. A group at Xavier University in Cincinnati is the latest to try. They want to build a King museum with a recording studio and training facility for youth. We’ll see how this goes. It seems something like this gets proposed every 10 years.

The important thing about King is the spirit of it and I don’t know how to memorialize that. King was never about the facility, it was the spirit and idea of making records.

Keep reading:

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Key King Artists

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(Above: Bruce Springsteen isn’t even close to being the biggest legend onstage in this historic performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” from 1987.)

By Joel Francis

“Rock Hall Live,” an exquisite nine DVD box set of performances and speeches from the past 25 years of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies is a treasure trove for all music fans, but it should especially attractive to Bruce Springsteen fans. Springsteen appears on all but two of the discs in more than a dozen performances and nearly as many speeches. As the unofficial MC of the collection, Springsteen makes more appearances than anyone else.

The Daily Record previously reviewed “Rock Hall Live.” On Monday and Friday of this week it will examine every Springsteen performance on the collection. Although these performances are scattered throughout the box set, we will look at them in chronological order. On Wednesday, The Daily Record will review Springsteen’s concert at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. (NOTE: Tuesday’s concert was cancelled because of the death of Springsteen’s cousin and road manager. On Wednesday The Daily Record will discuss Stevie Wonder’s 1968 hit “For Once in My Life.”)

1987 – “(Oh) Pretty Woman” (with Roy Orbison)

The footage from these early inductions – 1987 heralded the Hall’s second class of members – is shaky and the audio is questionable at best. Surrounded by Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, B.B. King, Carl Perkins and scores of other music legends, and awestruck Springsteen pays tribute to the man he immortalized in the lyrics to “Thunder Road.” Springsteen is so excited he forgets the song in a couple places, but his joy at being able to celebrate with Roy Orbison is infectious. Two years later, Orbison was gone and Springsteen paid him another tribute by performing “Crying” at that year’s ceremony.

1988 – “I Saw Her Standing There” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

It takes the cameraman a few moments to find the vocalist amongst the throng of performers onstage, but the camera finally lands on Billy Joel, belting out the first verse from the peanut gallery. Mick Jagger takes the second verse with an assist from George Harrison. Somewhere onstage, Ringo Starr is one of several happy drummers, making the occasion the closest thing to a Beatles reunion to happen until the Anthology project. (Paul McCartney was feuding with Harrison and Starr at the time and opted not to attend.) After a guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Springsteen finally gets the mic for the third verse. Despite forgetting a few of the words, he exuberantly finishes the number with Jagger.

1988 – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (with Mick Jagger and the Rock Hall Jam Band)

In his 2004 speech inducting Jackson Browne to the Rock Hall, Springsteen says he wishes he’d written “Satisfaction.” Sixteen years earlier, Springsteen realized part of his dream by performing the number with half of its authors. Surrounded by John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Harrison, Beach Boy Mike Love, Jeff Lynne, Tina Turner, Ben E. King and keytar-rocking band leader Paul Schaffer, Springsteen trades lines with Jagger on the chorus. Sporting a gray suit and bolo tie and backed by E Street drummer Max Weinberg somewhere in the swarm, Springsteen is little more than a vocal prop in this chaotic number.

1993 – “Green River,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (all with John Fogerty and Robbie Robertson)

Springsteen plays rhythm guitar and adds backing vocals to this trio of Creedence Clearwater Revival classics. Still upset at his former CCR band mates, John Fogerty refuses to perform with Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. The tension between the three is evident during the acceptance speech, but it completely dissolves once Fogerty straps on his guitar and steps behind the mic. The songs don’t really need three guitarists, but Springsteen is elated to be performing with yet another idol and happy to let Robbie Robertson and Fogerty do all the heavy lifting. There is also rehearsal footage of Springsteen, Fogerty, Robertson and bass player Don Was playing around with different arrangements. Robertson is clearly in charge of the ensemble and again Springsteen seems content to observe. Springsteen does jump into action, however, to work out the harmony vocal line with Fogerty and to successfully lobby for the inclusion of “Green River.”

1994 – “Come Together” (with Axl Rose)

This is a bad idea on paper and it’s even worse onstage. Springsteen looks stiff, sharply strumming a black Stratocaster that matches his tuxedo. A few paces away, Axl Rose more relaxed wearing jeans and flannel as he bobs and weaves like a snake hearing some inaudible flute. This isn’t a duet so much as two performers doing the same song in a shared space. Rose’s voice is fine in its own context, but it’s rarely complementary. His performance here is so grating it makes one long for Aerosmith’s version (shudder). Springsteen seems relieved when the song finally ends.

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rock hall dvds

By Joel Francis

When the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, a tuxedo-clad Mick Jagger famously announced “Tonight we’re all on our best behavior — and we’re being rewarded for 25 years of bad behavior.”

That irony is on full display throughout eight of the DVDs in a new collection of induction ceremony performances released by Time Life and the Rock Hall this month. (A ninth disc features highlights from the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held in Cleveland.) Despite white tablecloth banquet tables and austere surroundings, great music frequently prevails.

The “Rock Hall Live” discs each run between 75 and 90 minutes and have a loose theme of soul, punk or ‘50s pioneers and the performances span the first ceremony in 1986 to this year’s Metallica induction. The performances tend to fall in two camps.

The early ceremonies were all-star celebrations of the inductees’ songbooks shot with on a couple video camera. Through fly-on-the-wall footage we see Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry swap verses on “Roll Over Beethoven” and Little Richard rejoice through “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as Jagger, Bob Dylan, members of the Beatles, Beach Boys and other rock royalty stand shoulder to shoulder, holding mics and strumming instruments. It’s fun to play spot the artist during these early presentations. Sometimes the results are shocking, as when Stevie Ray Vaughan appears – playing a Les Paul, no less – during “Beethoven.”

As the ceremonies grew in stature, the performances were better preserved and choreographed. The past 15 years of inductions play like one massive VH1 special, makes sense as these events have been a spring broadcast staple on that channel for better than a decade. Although the production is smoother, the spontaneity is retained when Jimmy Page casually strolls onstage to join Jeff Beck on “Beck’s Bolero” and Queen jam with the Foo Fighters on “Tie Your Mother Down.”

With are more than 100 performances across the nine discs, some unevenness is expected. Some this is because of the health of the performers. These discs capture some of the final appearances by The Band’s Rick Danko, Ruth Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell and Johnny Cash. Brown and Powell are fine, but Danko and Cash labor through their sets. Sometimes the pairings misfire, as on Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose’s duet through “Come Together.”

These missteps are minimized by the tight pacing of each disc, which moves from artist to artist like a well-paced soundtrack, with occasional snippets of introduction and induction speeches. (Complete version of selected speeches are available as bonus features.)  Despite the loose themes, each disc boasts a variety of guitar heroes, singer/songwriters, tributes and hits.

The best moments come when the performers reach beyond the formal atmosphere, like when Patti Smith spits onstage, or two kids bum rush the stage to help Green Day commemorate the Ramones. There is an impressive display of solos from guitar heroes Beck, Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, and Kirk Hammett, but the greatest six-string moment is Prince’s searing tribute to George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Anchored by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Harrison’s son Dhani, the immaculately tailored Prince soars on an jaw-dropping solo that is long on both melody and style.

Each disc contains about a several bonus features, which highlight backstage moments like watching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry induct Led Zeppelin from the wings of the stage with the band (and Willie Nelson!). It’s fun to watch Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty work out “Green River” and to eavesdrop on Hammett and Perry talk about guitars, but one viewing is probably enough.

One downside to this set is the packaging and sequencing. Each disc is housed in its own separate, full-sized case. This takes up a lot of shelf space. It would have been nice if they all came bundled in one compact, cardboard and plastic unit like seasons of TV shows.

The greater inconvenience is the sequencing. Cream’s three-song reunion from 1993 is spread across three discs. Ditto for the Doors’ 1993 set with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (three songs over three discs) and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street revival from 1999 (four songs on four discs). Culling the best moments is understandable, but it would have been great to get the multi-song sets in one place. It is also puzzling that less than two hours of the six-hour Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are included.

Oversights aside, any of these discs stand alone as a fun romp through rock history and celebration of its greatest songs and players across most genres and eras. At $120, this set isn’t cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot more affordable – and easier to come by – than the ticket that gets you a plate at one of those sterile, banquet tables. You don’t have to dress up, either.

(Full disclosure: The Daily Record received a complimentary review copy of “Rock Hall Live.”)

Keep Reading:

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Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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ejjl1
(Above: Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, 1974.
All photos by George Kalinsky, courtesy of www.georgekalinsky.com.)

By Joel Francis

In his 34 years as Madison Square Garden’s official photographer, George Kalinsky has forgotten more games, concerts and events than many people could see in several lifetimes.

Kalinsky, who estimates he has shot more than 8,000 events, can be forgiven for having no memory of Bob Marley’s next-to-last performances in 1978, because what he remembers more than makes up for any lapses.

“November 28, 1974. Don’t ask me how I remember that, but I do,” Kalinsky said with a laugh. “Elton John was playing the Garden, and he surprised everyone by having John Lennon join him onstage. Those three songs they did together turned out to be the last time John Lennon performed before he was shot. The moment I captured won’t be there again.”

Several of Kalinsky’s favorite moments are on display for a current exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “Live From Madison Square Garden: From the Lens of George Kalinsky” opened May 1 in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall and will run through January 2010.

“I’ve always tried to paint with light,” Kolinsky said. “Shooting against a plain black background is not the most creative, but it’s what you usually see. These performers spend millions on lighting and effects. I always try to capture that as part of the atmosphere of the performance.”

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The atmosphere for the Rolling Stones’ Garden concert in 1969 was a frenzy. The show was one of the first arena rock concerts and the pandemonium was captured and released on the Stones’ great live album “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.”

“That was the first time I saw a buzz, a reaction like that in the audience. Everyone wanted to be onstage and the crowd started gradually pushing forward,” Kalinsky said. “I went under the stage and went on in the back and got some amazing shots.”

Getting the audience’s reaction to the band was the key to recording the moment, Kalinsky said.

“I think a huge part of the story is the people and how they react,” he said. “There may not be too many pictures in this exhibit of the crowd, but I always try to include them. Every audience is different, just as a circus is different from a track meet and hockey is from basketball. The audience is a reflection of the performance.”

The crowd at a 1974 Bob Dylan performance played a key role in a shot Kalinsky called one of the top two or three photos he’s taken.

“Dylan is Dylan, the hair, the body language, all of it connecting and seeing the audience reach out to him is beautiful and telling,” Kalinsky said. “With him, the words are so important; when I look at Dylan I try to capture the aura of the man.

“I want to get a little closer to see what his face looks like,” Kalinsky continued, “and how it shows the years, not in terms of getting older, but the years of performing with the audience and how that bond grows stronger and stronger.”

fullscreen-capture-562009-35709-pmbmpDylan played a key role in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at the Garden. Shooting both of those shows not only taught Kalinsky that music was the true universal language, but showed him how far the Garden’s stage extended.

“I was in a cab recently and the driver was from Bangladesh,” Kalinsky said. “He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40 years old, but he said in the hearts of his family and friends in Bangladesh they would never forget Madison Square Garden. They weren’t there (at the Concert for Bangladesh), but they’d never forget because that’s where people learned to help his country and family.”

Events at the Garden, Kalinsky said, “become part of our culture and part of our world. It wasn’t long ago we had 9/11 and that concert. Even if you weren’t there, you were there because everybody in the world tuned in to the Concert for New York City.”

What stands out in Kalinsky’s mind from that show isn’t the defining performances from Paul McCartney, the Who and artists with ties to the Big Apple like Jay-Z and Bon Jovi, but a moment backstage with Billy Crystal before he was about to go on.

“I asked him how does he project his talent when the audience is in tears and police and firefighters are holding up pictures (of their missing loved ones)?” Kolinsky said. “He said the hardest thing to do was be funny in the face of an audience who had lost so much.”

Although Kalinsky’s relationships and reputation allowed him backstage that day, he acknowledged access has been almost completely shut down from the early days when he would take pictures of Elvis Presley in the dressing room before his first Garden concert or Sly Stone’s groomsmen getting ready before Stone’s onstage wedding in 1974.

And just as backstage has become more restrictive, the window for taking performance photos has been confined to the first three songs. That doesn’t bother Kalinsky, though, because digital technology and automatic lighting systems within the camera let him do as much with those three songs as he could in an entire show in the days of film.

“However, in terms of taking pictures it always comes down to the eye and the moment,” Kalinsky said. “You have to recognize the moment and snap the picture. This is the most important aspect, whether you are shooting a concert, sporting event or portrait setting. It’s what I’m always looking for.”

Kalinsky’s duties have also given him a window on the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, Knicks games, scores of the world’s top athletes and personalities. This diverse shooting background has provided enough photos to fill eight books and exhibits from the Museum of Modern Art to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.

“The Garden stage, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, the Pope or LeBron James, brings out the best in every performer,” Kalinsky said. “Every day I walk into the Garden I say what a privilege it is to be part of this arena and the best stage in the whole world.”

(Below: A recent portrait of the Red-Headed Stranger.)

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Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

Rock Hall Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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motownnew

Above: Part of the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit celebrating 50 years of Motown Records. The exhibit is open all year. (Photo courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

By Joel Francis

It may seem hard to believe, but “the sound of young America” is 50 years old.

To celebrate a half-century of Motown records, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is hosting a new exhibit, “Motown: The Sound of Young America Turns 50,” all year in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall.

“It’s an obvious anniversary, one we should do something about,” said Howard Kramer, director of curatorial affairs for the museum. “Lots of labels have anniversaries, but Motown still rings wide and true.”

One of the largest items on display is the upright bass Funk Brother James Jamerson played on all his Motown sessions until 1963. It’s the instrument heard on “My Guy” and “Heat Wave.”

“A lot of people maintain the key to Motown was the rhythm section: The snap of the drums, the gorgeously intricate bass line and then the percussion laid over the top,” Kramer said. “Jamerson was the primary bass player. He carried the weight of those recordings.”

Of particular interest to Kramer are four posters promoting Motown concerts. Two of the posters advertise Motown Revue shows, which featured several of the labels artists on the same bill.

“For the 1963 revue, Stevie Wonder was the headliner.Usually the person with the biggest hit at the time was the headliner, and in this case he was riding ‘Fingertips, Part 2,'” Kramer said. “It’s interesting to see both who’s on top and the volume of artists (on the bill). It’s also interesting to note that for the 1968 Motown Revue shows at the Fox Theater in Detroit, they played 9 or 10 days in a theater that seats 5,000.”

Together, the posters span five years and a range of venues from a high school gym to a civic sports arena.

“These posters give you an idea of the breadth of places Motown performers were playing,” Kramer said. “They’d play arenas, high schools, theaters and also posh nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York,” Kramer said. “They played every possible circuit.”

Other items in the exhibit include the dress Supreme Mary Wilson wore for the group’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show after the departure of Diana Ross, the outfit and glasses Stevie Wonder wore for his halftime performance at the 1999 Super Bowl and a stage costume worn by Miracle Bobby Rogers in the 1970s.

“Rogers’ suit is an example of the over-the-top clothing vocal groups wore at the time,” Kramer said. “There’s no reason for this to have been made except for a performer. This is not street wear.”

Thanks to a loan from the Universal Music Group, which owns the Motown label, many of the artifacts have never been displayed before.

“A lot of Motown stuff didn’t make it past the original era,” Kramer said. “The only item we’ve shown before is Rick James’ bass.”

For many of the Motown session musicians, playing for Hitsville was just another gig. But 50 years later, the notes they laid down still resonate.

After 50 years and several generations Motown is still a staple of radio, music, movies, television, commercials,” Kramer said. “That’s part of (label founder Berry) Gordy’s vision to make the music palatable to all ages.”

To learn more about museum hours and ticket information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

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Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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