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(Above: Paul McCartney goes to Kansas City with a little help from his friends.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The Big Apple has “New York, New York,” “Empire State of Mind” and dozens more. The Windy City has “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago.” Tom Waits gifted the Twin Cities with not one but two songs (“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and “9th and Hennipen”). Visitors to the Bay City are encouraged to “wear some flowers in (their) hair” while the City of Angels gets “California Love,” “Beverly Hills” and “Hollywood Swingin’.” Heck, the even the Gateway City has “St. Louis Blues.”

But there’s only one universally known song about my hometown: “Kansas City.” (Only obsessive music fans and listeners of a certain age will recall “Everything Is Up To Date in Kansas City” and “Train to Kansas City.”) When listening to Jay-Z, Frank Sinatra, Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong boast about other American cities I try to find comfort reminding myself that the Beatles only sang about one city during their career and they chose “Kansas City.”

“Kansas City” is the only song visiting performers feel obliged to work into their setlist. Willie Nelson played it at Farm Aid earlier this month and Paul McCartney used it to open his 1993 show at Arrowhead Stadium (the recording from that night also appears the album “Paul Is Live”). I’ve heard the song so many times in concert I feel like someone should tell all touring acts that no, really, they don’t have to play “Kansas City” on our behalf.

It’s not like the song is invisible around town. Twelfth Street and Vine may be gone (typical of my hometown – undermining its greatest assets), but the song is still very present. Go to a Royals game and if you stick around until the end you are guaranteed to hear “Kansas City.” If the boys in blue win, fans are treated to the Beatles version. If they lose then Wilbert Harrison is piped through the speakers.

“Kansas City” was seven years old by the time Harrison got his hands on it. Originally recorded by bluesman Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, the song was written by a couple of 19-year-old Jews inspired by a Big Joe Turner record. Littlefield’s performance featured a somewhat racier chorus, ending with the line “with my Kansas City baby and some Kansas City wine.” When Federal Records received Littlefield’s recording they promptly rechristened it “K.C. Lovin’.”

Wilbert Harrison

Harrison had been performing “K.C. Lovin’” for years before he decided to record it in 1959 under its original title and with the sanitized chorus we all know today. Released on Fury Records, the platter went straight to No. 1 and spawned an army of imitators. Within weeks, interpretations of “Kansas City” by Hank Ballard, Rockin’ Ronald, Little Richard, Rocky Olson and a reissue of Littlefield’s original recording could be found in record shops. Paired with his own “Hey Hey Hey,” Little Richard’s cover hit No. 27 in the UK and inspired the Beatles’ recording.

The men – boys, really – who penned “Kansas City” wouldn’t visit the town that inspired their song until the mid-‘80s, nearly 35 years after handing the tune to Littlefield. Despite this handicap, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller nailed their vision of “a melody that sounded like it could have come out of a little band in Kansas City,” as Stoller later explained on a UK television show.

Hot on the heels of “Hound Dog,” “Kansas City” cemented Leiber and Stoller’s reputation as rock and roll’s hottest songwriters. Before the decade was out they would write scores of hit songs for the biggest singers of the day – Elvis Presley, the Drifters, Phil Spector, Ben E. King and, especially, the Coasters – and shape the young days of rock and roll more than anyone else. A sampling of their songs from the time reads like an early rock and roll greatest hits collection: “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Riot in Cell Block Nine,” “On Broadway,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Young Blood,” “Searchin’,” “Yakety Yak,” “Stand By Me” and on and on.

Jerry Leiber (left) and Mike Stoller show the King of Rock and Roll his next hit.

The duo’s use of strings on the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” predates (and foreshadows) the Motown sound that would dominate pop music in the coming decade. In fact many of their arrangements and innovations were so prescient that Leiber and Stoller found themselves on the sidelines for much of the 1960s. The Beatles and other British Invasion bands learned to write emulating Leiber and Stoller and other Brill Building songwriters, making third-party songwriters largely redundant. The expansive use of the recording studio rendered Leiber and Stoller’s pioneering arrangements sounding (for a while) like quaint relics of the past.

Despite these advancements, rock and roll and pop music will never outgrow the shadow of Leiber and Stoller. Grammy awards, hall of fame inductions and songwriting royalties stand as a testament to Leiber and Stoller’s perpetual influence. Even “American Idol” paused to pay tribute with an all Leiber-and-Stoller episode last spring.

Jerry Leiber, 78, died Monday. His survivors include Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner of 60 years, his family and everyone who ever picked up the guitar or sat down at the piano and tried to write a song or become a star.

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 (Above: It may have been the holiday season, but John Lennon wasn’t pulling any punches when he put this video together. This extended cut also includes edited interviews with Lennon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Before it was a song, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” was a billboard. In 1969, two years before the song was written and recorded, John Lennon and Yoko Ono proclaimed “War is Over! (If You Want It)” on signage in New York, Rome, Berlin, Tokyo and several other major cities around the world. The signs were an outgrowth of Lennon and Ono’s bed-in for peace, but the phrase stuck in Lennon’s head.

When the couple relocated to New York City in 1971, Lennon quickly feel in the company of radical ‘60s activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon had already gone on record against the Vietnam War at a Beatles press conference in 1966. The conflict was also a frequent topic of conversation during the bed-in. Instead of giving peace a chance, though, the United States had become even more entrenched in combat.

Inspired by his social circle and frustrated by another holiday season marked by fighting, Lennon turned his billboard slogan into a song. Lennon wrote the song over two nights in a New York City hotel room and recorded it almost immediately. Despite being released less than three weeks before Christmas, the single still managed to reach the Top 40. The feat was replicated each time the single was re-released. In Lennon’s native England, the single did not appear until 1972, when it went in the Top 5.

After a whispered shout-out (whisper-out?) to the pair’s children, Phil Spector’s wall of sound kicks in. The opening line – “And so this is Christmas/and what have you done?” – is both a nostalgic look back and the previous year and question of accountability. Despite having hope for the upcoming year, Lennon admits “the world is so wrong.” A chorus of children from the Harlem Community Choir echoes the words that started it all: War is over/If you want it.”

The melody is based on the folk ballad “Stewball,” a song about a British race horse. The first versions of “Stewball” date to the 18th century, but Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly put their stamp on the song in the 1940s. During the folk revival of the early ‘60s, both Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez included the song in their repertoire.

Many artists, including skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, a big influence on Lennon and most British musicians of his generation, have cover “Stewball,” but their numbers pale in comparison to the roster of those who have recorded “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” From Andy Williams and Celine Dion to Maroon 5 and American Idol David Cook to the Moody Blues and the Polyphonic Spree, the song has been covered by nearly every conceivable artist in nearly every conceivable genre.

Keep reading:

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Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

George Harrison – “Ding Dong, Ding Dong”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

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(Above: The primitive beauty of unaccompanied fireworks over the national Mall on July 4, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – Soul legend Gladys Knight took the stage staring into a sea of empty seats. It was three hours before show time, and the VIPs with reserved seats wisely avoided the blistering afternoon sun.

Knight, however, was undeterred. “This is a thing we used to call audience participation,” she hollered to the groundlings on the Capitol lawn who arrived hours before to stake a prime spot. Knight drew out each syllable of “par-tic-i-pat-ion” and drew cheers of delight from the exhausted but excited assembly of hundreds.

When Knight launched into a call and response, her words were thrown back with force and a smile crossed her face. After a few volleys, the band pumped the final vamp as she threw up her arms and walked from the stage. The 30-minute mini-set, which included a few instrumental runs through made the risk of heat stroke seem reasonable.

The blazing sun had been replaced with bright stage lights and television cameras when Knight re-emerged shortly after 8 p.m. After a brief welcome by MC Jimmy Smits, American Idol David Archuleta opened the show with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then it was time to get down to business.

The Empress of Soul emerged in a golden gown, flying into “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Knight’s voice was strong in the afternoon, but now she sang with even more soul and emotion. The words are the same, but the phrasing was different and they were delivered with a power has been honed over Knight’s half-century career.

Her voice rises in sharp contrast to Darius Rucker’s, who also sound checked in the afternoon. I realize his laid-back, what-you-see-is-what-you-get charm is a large part of his appeal, but there was very little difference between the run-through and televised performances. Rucker has a fine voice, but I hope he was paying attention.

Barely pausing after “Georgia,” the band hic-cupped into Knight’s 1969 hit “The Nitty Gritty.” Knight used the upbeat number to pay tribute to two of her departed Motown label mates, dropping in a healthy portion of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and a sample of a Rick James number. Then it was time to finish business with her biggest hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which showed no signs of age.

And that was it. Ten minutes, three songs, and she was walking offstage. Afterward people started asking me if it was worth it to trek to the Mall so early and broil for so long. Absolutely. Knight’s presence cemented my attendance, but I likely would have gone anyway. As far back as I can remember, my family always gathered around the television on the Fourth of July to watch the PBS broadcast from the capital. And now, with my parents rooting me on from their air-conditioned living room, I was there.

The performances I remember from growing up were classical and marching band pieces, so the National Symphony Orchestra’s patriotic overture from “George M.” and classical pianist Lang Lang’s solo adaptation of “Stars and Stripes Forever” resonated the most deeply. Once the shock of hearing Sousa’s most famous number without horns wore off, Lang’s performance was quite profound. The lines typically dominated by trombones and tubas was intricate and dissonant, while the familiar piccolo refrain had a ragtime feel.

Although the Capitol lawn is vast, it was easy to forget about the thousands of people standing behind me and the hundreds of thousands gathered behind the stage, on the Mall. In a way, the “Capitol Fourth” broadcast felt like any concert in the park, albeit one with TV cameras and A-list talent. As John Schneider (aka Bo Duke) led a recap celebrating the 30th anniversary of the broadcast, I abandoned the concert grounds and headliner Reba McEntire and to be part of the teeming masses camping around the Washington Monument.

The high-profile event disappeared with every step. The lawns on the Mall were filled with tents, displays and crowds oblivious to the concert behind them. Walking through one block I encountered an expanse of grass filled with multi-colored tents bearing signs like “Yoga and Meditation” and “Free Feast.” The tent most intriguing to me featured live traditional Indian music. The artists onstage were nearly obscured by smoke, and the crowd was sparse, but there were more people dancing than watching.

A block further, I spotted what I thought to be a poetry slam backed by a live drummer. Upon closer inspection it was a different sort of poet, a fevered evangelist in the middle of a passionate altar call. I briefly raised my hand in solidarity and pressed on.

An orange band hovered on the horizon above the Lincoln Memorial when the fireworks started shortly after 9 p.m. Unlike all previous July 4th celebrations I have attended, the carnival of explosions around the Washington Monument burst without accompaniment. The muffled pops and sizzles from each multi-color detonation was met by the collective oohs and ahs of thousands. In place of orchestration, my ears were treated to a kaleidoscope of accents, dialects and languages, punctuated by the occasional far-off siren or barking vendor. It was one of the rare moments in my life when music was rendered completely redundant.

For 20 minutes we stood united by a common gaze in the sky, a diverse collection of tourists from all parts of the map. Although the horde easily exceeded the audience created by the simultaneous emptying of Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, the Kansas Speedway and Sprint Center, there was no whiff of anger or danger. Small children danced in front of their strollers as teen-agers texted their friends and old-timers remembered when. It would be poetic to say that when the display ended we all went back to our respective lives, but in reality we all just swarmed to a different location – the subway stations.

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(Above: A recent performance by the Blue Note 7 at the Gem Theater started this whole debate.)

By Joel Francis

Friend of the blog Plastic Sax ran a compelling editorial earlier this week about government sponsorships. The questions it raised about why classical music and jazz are the most heavily subsided genres and why private businesses featuring similar artists had to compete against government funds are worth greater discussion.

It seems the crux of the issues with subsidizing government sponsorships is that they run counter to the age-old capitalist creed of letting the marketplace decide. The folks at Jardine’s and The Phoenix work just as hard to bring people in to hear jazz as the Folly and the Gem, why aren’t they getting help?

At the risk of sounding like a socialist, The Daily Record believes there needs to be boundaries placed on the free market. Aside from public radio, there are no government subsidies on Kansas City’s radio dial, and the town has been without a jazz station and an FM classical station in nearly two decades. Beethoven will never bring the ratings that BTO seem to provide to the city’s countless classic rock stations, but does this warrant erasing classical music from the dial? How can an audience or appreciation be built in this void?

A case could be made that successful jazz clubs are penalized for their success, but the nights they compete with federally funded concerts are scarce compared to the evenings they have to themselves. Are the dozen shows each year at the Folly and Gem cutting that deeply into their profits? 

Jazz and classical music are funded because they’re the least controversial. They’re popular enough that most people will applaud the effort, but ignored enough that no one is going to waste the time digging into the music searching for scandalous meaning. There will never be a Piss Christ controversy with this music. However, imagine being the senator that suggests the National Endowment of the Arts support an evening of Slayer doing “Reign in Blood” at the Kennedy Center or a 20th Anniversary Death Row Records tour. This may not be fair, but equality is a rare visitor in the annals of politics.

It’s easy to be cynical and complain about an ever-dropping lowest common denominator. Jazz and classical artists will never be as popular as Ryan Seacrest and the latest American Idol, and “Nightline” and “Meet the Press” will never bring the ratings of “Two and a Half Men” and “Rock of Love Bus.” But that doesn’t mean work with greater meaning – whatever the medium – shouldn’t coexist with revenue-generating evanescence. A balance must be struck, and if it takes government funding to maintain that equilibrium, then the money should be spent.

Therefore, The Daily Record posits that if the government has billions of dollars each month to spend waging war and sustaining the defense industry, it should certainly continue to throw as many sheckles as possible into the arts, however they’re defined.

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