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Posts Tagged ‘B.B. King’

(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.

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Rock Hall celebrates the 40th anniversary of Woodstock

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

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(Above: B.B. King and Buddy Guy jam on “Rock Me Baby” with Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan at a recent Crossroads Festival.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Few in the sold-out crowd that greeted B.B. King, the 84-year-old King of the Blues, at the Midland theater on Friday night expected the energy and vitality of King’s essential “Live at the Regal” album, released 45 years ago. It is also likely few expected the extensive banter that filled King’s 90 minutes onstage.

King’s set opened with a 10-minute vamp that allowed everyone in his eight-piece backing band the chance to solo. Once King took the stage, he proved he still had the chops and voice fans love. His excellent reading of the blues warhorse “Key to the Highway” melded nicely into King’s own “Blues Man.”

Another classic, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” was driven by a military cadence on the snare drum. When coupled with King’s four-piece horn arrangement, the song recalled a New Orleans funeral march. The band followed that number with a song King recorded with U2 back in the ‘80s. In their most upbeat performance of the night, the King and his band lit into “When Love Comes To Town” with surprising energy. Sadly, it was not to last.

From there King’s set was as much a monologue as it was a musical dialogue. Here are some of his best one-liners:
•    “You can look at me and tell I ain’t no Michael Phelps. I don’t smoke.”
•    After hitting a bum note on Lucille, his guitar: “I know I shouldn’t have let her go to the liquor store.”
•    After the audience response didn’t meet expectations: “I think you’re teasing me. You sound like Tiger Woods.”

As King’s chitchat neared the 20-minute mark, fans started to grow restless. Some shouted song requests; others just yelled “play something.” King apologized for not being able to play one of the requests, then continued rambling about Viagra and instructing men how to set the mood by playing Willie Nelson’s “Always On My Mind.”

After a bizarre musical riff on ED medications, King finally gave the crowd another song in the form of “Rock Me Baby.” The aborted performance led into King’s signature number, “The Thrill Is Gone.” Even then, King littered the song with asides and shout-outs to the sound men and lighting crew. When the throng realized they weren’t going to get another full performance, they started leaving en masse.

No one can fault King for growing old. He’s lived a rich life and brought joy to millions of people around the globe. Perhaps King feels he needs to stay onstage for so long to justify his high ticket price. If this is the case, he may be better off knocking a couple bucks off the ticket and cutting half of his horn section. (The quartet was only onstage half the time anyway.) While King’s onstage generosity is commendable, fans might be more appreciative of a shorter set loaded with music than the current drawn-out arrangement.

It would be unfair to label Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy the evening’s “opening act.” Guy just happened to go onstage first.

Listening to Guy is like hearing the history of electric blues on shuffle. Backed by a tight four-piece band, the 73-year-old guitarist tore through a 65-minute tribute to his heroes and contemporaries.

Guy teased out an abstract solo over the familiar opening chords of “Hoochie Coochie Man” in a setting that was more Thelonious Monk than Muddy Waters, and took particular delight in delivering the song’s more racy lyrics. Guy’s tribute to his late friend and collaborator Junior Wells on “Hoodoo Man” was another high point.

The night’s signature moment started with Guy playing so quietly one could hear his amp buzzing over the P.A. As “Drowning on Dry Land” progressed, Guy eased his way off-stage and into the crowd. He nailed a long solo while walking nearly two-thirds of the way up the floor, and finished it plopped down in a surprised fan’s seat.

Before leaving the stage, Guy paid tribute to his friend and inspiration, B.B. King. Growing up in Louisiana, Guy said, there were no music shops, just stores that happened to have instruments in one corner. Before King’s records came out, inventory was priced to move. But after “Three O’Clock Blues,” guitars were suddenly harder to come by.

B.B. King setlist: I Need You So, Let the Good Times Roll, Key to the Highway>Blues Man, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, When Love Comes To Town, You Are My Sunshine, “ED Medication Blues,” Rock Me Baby, The Thrill Is Gone.

Buddy Guy setlist: Nobody Understands Me But My Guitar, Muddy Waters medley: Hoochie Coochie Man/She’s 19 Years Old/Love Her With A Feeling, Hoodoo Man, Slippin’ Out, Slippin’ In, Drowning On Dry Land, Close to You, Boom Boom, Strange Brew, Voodoo Chile, Sunshine of Your Love.

Keep reading:

Review: Buddy Guy (2008)

Review: Buddy and Bettye at Roots N Blues N BBQ Fest 2008

The True Story of Cadillac Records

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(Above: Chuck Brown reworks the “Batman” theme at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.)

By Joel Francis

ANNAPOLIS, MD – When you’re as well-known and revered as Chuck Brown, it’s hard going anywhere unnoticed. Especially onstage.

Brown rattled off shout-outs, hellos and congratulations for several minutes before his eight-piece band finally settled down to business for the first of two Black Friday shows at Rams Head Live.

As the reigning Godfather of Go-Go, Brown showed off his guitar chops and sharp horn section with the extended opener “Love Theme from The Godfather.” Brown then put everyone in the holiday mood with a reading of “Merry Christmas, Baby” that lived somewhere between B.B. King and George Clinton. But the dance floor set up to the left of the stage remained conspicuously vacant.

The opening words of “Run Joe” – a cross between the Coasters, hip hop, reggae and a children’s song – unleashed a stampede to the floor. The moving multitude knew exactly when to throw Brown’s catch-phrases back at him, and forced the 73-year-old performer to split his time between the bodies in front of the stage and the spirited congregation on the side.

Go-go is a funk hybrid driven by congas and percussion and a palette wide enough to include jazz, blues, pop and Caribbean influences. Brown helped pioneer the form in the mid-‘70s. Born in Washington, D.C., the genre has yet to catch on beyond the Mid-Atlantic states. Brown’s shows feel like a cross between Parliament-Funkadelic and Jimmy Buffett.

Like Buffett, Brown has a dedicated following who know all the calls and responses and relish the opportunity to feel like part of the band. And like P-Funk, Brown’s band carries a strong groove that can hang on or switch up as often – and quickly – as their leader commands.

The heart of the show was Brown’s magnificent medley of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Midnight Sun,” “Moody’s Mood for Love” and the “Woody Woodpecker” theme. These songs were old when Brown started performing them a couple decades ago, but they’ve rarely felt as vital. Brown resuscitated these standards and made them feel like not nostalgic night club pieces but animated dance club anthems. For a moment, it felt a little like how all the stories described the Savoy Ballroom in its heyday.

But Brown’s set isn’t rooted in the past. He invited his daughter, keyboardist K.K., out front to lead the crowd through Lady GaGa’s “Pokerface” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It).” Thanks to the energy of the crowd and spirited performance by the band, these ubiquitous numbers also felt fresh. The band also proved a lesson that contemporary record producers have yet to learn: Pop music sounds infinitely better with a live rhythm section driving the track.

The evening ended with Lil Benny, another guest singer, leading the crowd through the pop and lock and other dance moves. In a year packed with Michael Jackson tributes, the Benny delivered one of the best. His version of “Butterfly” brought the song out of its cocoon.

Although he never left the stage, Brown closed the set by reclaiming the mic and performing “Bustin’ Loose,” his signature song. At 80 minutes, the performance felt a little light, and Brown conceded too much time to the other vocalists, but no one seemed to mind. Besides, another show was always right around the corner.

With the house lights up, Brown ended the night just as it started, talking with the crowd. Although Rams Head Live isn’t much bigger than the Bottleneck in Lawrence, Kan. – the biggest difference is that the room is positioned horizontally with the stage in the middle, instead of vertically with the stage at the end – it was going to Brown a while to reach the dressing room. And he was going to enjoy every moment of the journey.

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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.

Keep reading:

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Review: Boss is Bigger than Big 12 Tourney (2008)

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello – “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

New DVD Set Celebrates Rock Hall Performances

More Bruce Springsteen in The Daily Record

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(Above: Al Hibbler, who wrote “Unchained Melody,” attended school for the blind in Little Rock, Ark.)

By Joel Francis

At a recent concert in Fayetteville, Ark., jazz legend Sonny Rollins remarked at how happy he was to be playing Louis Jordan’s home state for the first time.

Arkansas has never been known as either cutting-edge or influential. Not even Bill Clinton could save Arkansas from being a backwoods punchline – it’s the West Virginia of the Midwest, for readers who are mystified by what lies west of Virginia – but it’s spawned an amazing number of influential musicians. There’s Johnny Cash, who was born in Kingsland and raised in Dyess, and his brother Tommy, of course. Legendary Band drummer Levon Helm, who hails from Marvell. Those are the ones everybody knows.

Incredibly, soul legend Al Green was born in Forrest City. One of Green’s influences, gospel/rock and roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was born in Cotton Plant. Contemporary gospel star Smokie Norfull was originally from Pine Bluff. Delight brought us Glen Campbell, Colt was Charlie Rich’s first home and Conway Twitty was born Harold Jenkins in Helena. John Hughes, a pedal steel player who worked Twitty and numerous others, came from Elaine.

Louis Jordan (Brinkley) aside, the Natural State has also produced jazzman Joe Bishop from Monticello, who wrote the staple “Woodchopper’s Ball” and free jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (Little Rock).

The state’s greatest legacy might be the amount of blues it birthed, including Luther Allison (Widener), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Helena), Son Seals (Osceola), Jimmy Witherspoon (Gurdon), Roosevelt Sykes (Elmar) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (Helena). West Memphis was the first stop north for many blues players. Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Big Boy Crudup and B.B. King all stopped there for a while. Stax pillar Rufus Thomas was a longtime West Memphis radio host.

The name Jim Dickinson (Little Rock) may not be familiar, but his work with the Dixie Flyers, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Big Star, the Flamin’ Groovies, the Replacements, Mudhoney and the North Mississippi Allstars – which features his sons Luther and Cody – has been heard the world over.

On the pop side, founding Evanescence duo Amy Lee and Ben Moody are also both Little Rock Natives; R&B slickster Ne-Yo was born in Camden and Perryville begat Shawn Camp, who has written songs for Garth Brooks, George Strait and Brooks and Dunn.

Arkansas may be a forgotten state that ranks in 32nd in population and 29th in area, but if you can’t experience its Ozark Mountains in person, it’s at least worth a musical road trip.

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The last time The Daily Record watched a complete Grammy Awards show, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” won Album of the Year. This year, though, we got suckered in by the promise of seeing Radiohead. (Have they won a Grammy? Wikipedia says yes.) This presented the perfect opportunity to do one of those running diaries like Bill Simmons does for ESPN. We not may be as successful, but the official wife of The Daily Record was glad her husband’s snarky comments were bypassing her ears and going straight online, where she could ignore them more easily. Enjoy!

7:00 U2’s new song sounds like Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

7:02 The lyrics to their new song “Get On Your Boots” appear on a large video screen behind the band. I wonder if this is what all the presenters will see on their Teleprompters.

7:09 Whitney Houston comes out to present the award for “Best R&B Album.” Forget Botox – cocaine must be the secret to a younger looking face.

7:10 Seriously, Houston looks like she has been stored in the freezer next to Ted Williams for the last 10 years.

7:12 The Rock is as good a comedian as he is an actor.

7:17 Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban paying tribute to Al Green is like Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney giving props to Barack Obama.

7:21 First commercial break. High-powered bloggers use this time to make snarky comments about commercials too. Unfortunately, The Daily Record has no corporate sponsorship. We’ll use this time to do glamorous things like take out the trash and recycling, pull stuff together for work tomorrow.

7:26 For a second, I thought Chris Martin was Paul McCartney sitting at his Magical Mystery Tour piano.

7:28 Let the haters hate; Jay-Z is still great.

7:29 How come Coldplay get to play two songs? I wonder if Joe Satriani will come out. Probably not.

7:30 Coldplay’s Beatles motif is reinforced with their Sgt. Pepper jackets.

7:33 Although representatives insist that all Grammy performers will not perform to a backing track like Bruce Springsteen did at last week’s Super Bowl, you have to be suspicious. It’s not like the music industry is a bastion of integrity.

7:34 Why does “country” singer Carrie Underwood rock harder than “rock stars” Coldplay?

7:35 I have no idea what Carrie is singing. I think it’s something about how long it took to get her legs waxed. Damn them’s some shiny gams!

7:36 Carrie’s guitar player looks like Lita Ford’s daughter.

7:38 Why does Sheryl Crow, 46, look younger than LeAnn Rimes, 26?

7:39 Congratulations, you’ve won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. We will now honor you with a 15 second black and white video clip. Why not let the recipients perform?

7:48 Hey, Coldplay just acknowledged my Sgt. Pepper’s joke!

7:49 Man, Kid Rock really, really likes Bob Seger.

7:58 Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are performing together for the first time, but they won’t let the guys playing acoustic guitars and bass onstage with them.

7:59 It’s really bugging me that they won’t let the band perform onstage. What were they told? “OK, here’s the deal. You four will sing backing vocals, provide rhythm support, fine, you’ll carry the whole thing – but we don’t actually want anyone to see you do it.” Was there not enough crawlspace under the stage to stuff them in there?

8:02 A seated Tylor Swift just said “If you’re 19, or even older, it’s still a thrill to stand on the Grammy stage.” Man, she is going to have a long time to be depressed.

8:03 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss just won AWARD. But even better news is that they’re working on a new album together.

8:05 This is why we don’t need a Whitney Houston comeback. Jennifer Hudson is both more talented and a more substantive person.

8:15 What the? Stevie Wonder is jamming with the Jonas Brothers. Half the audience is wondering who the old dude is and everyone else is wondering what he’s doing playing with them. Thing is, it doesn’t sound half bad. Then again, I’m a sucker for Stevie’s vocoder trick.

8:16 Any excuse to hear “Superstition” is a good thing. I’ll never buy a Jonas Brothers album, but I thank them for this moment.

8:17 Seriously, you know your songs kick butt when Disney-sponsored tweener heart-throbs can’t screw them up. Not even Celine Dion could ruin this moment.

8:19 I hear Blink 182’s next album is going to be a tribute to Def Leppard.

8:20 Do Coldplay have to mention the Beatles every time they take the podium? Pretty soon Ringo will be onstage with them refusing to sign autographs.

8:27 Don’t forget, Craig Ferguson writes all his own material.

8:29 Am I the last person on Earth to be hearing “I Kissed A Girl” for the first time right now?

8:30 Why is Katy Perry dancing in Carmen Miranda’s headdress? This segment must be sponsored by Chiquita.

8:31 Am I the only person on Earth to feel like he hasn’t missed anything by not hearing “I Kissed A Girl” until now?

8:32 I don’t know the song Kanye West is doing with Estelle, but “808s and Heartbreaks” is really growing on me.

8:33 Kanye is taking this ’80s fixation a bit too far. Next year he’s going to come out wearing a Huxtable sweater.

8:41 I don’t care how long he keeps wearing it, that earring is never going to look natural on Morgan Freeman.

8:45 Sean “Puffy” Combs, Natalie Cole and Herbie Hancock are on hand to present “Record of the Year.” One of these things is not like the other (in a good way).

8:46 Natalie Cole’s dress looks like a last-minute compromise from the outfit Lil Kim wore on the MTV awards a few years back.

8:47 Plant and Krauss just won again. Robert Plant might have the most successful post-supergroup career of all time. OK, maybe Paul McCartney – but Plant’s taken more chances.

8:53 They just gave a Lifetime Achievement Award to Dean Martin. I guess we now know why they don’t have these winners perform, but why’d the take him so long for Martin to get this award? He’s been dead for awhile, but he certainly had the sales and popularity when he was alive. Maybe next year they’ll finally get around to honoring Bing Crosby.

8:54 I’m not sure why M.I.A. had to secede the stage so quickly. How cool would it have been if Mick Jones and Paul Simonon came out to do “Paper Planes” with her?

8:55 Kanye, Jay-Z, T.I. and Lil Wayne’s performance together is being called a “historic hip hop summit.” The tour kicks off next month in Yalta.

8:57 M.I.A.’s polka-dot pregnancy outfit is sponsored by Buddy Guy’s guitar.

9:00 I can’t believe I’ve sat through two hours of this show … and still have 90 minutes to go.

9:01 If I were going to have Dave Grohl drum with Paul McCartney I’d give him something a little meatier than “I Saw Her Standing There.” Maybe “Band on the Run” or “Helter Skelter.” I’m just saying.

9:10 Feed just went out as John Mayer was accepting an award. I guess my TV isn’t much of a fan either.

9:11 Jay Mohr and LL Cool J is one of the most awkward pairings of the night. Then again, Jay Morh and anyone is an awkward arrangement.

9:15 Sugarland and Adele aren’t really performing “together for the first time” as promised, but “one right after another.” Eh.

9:17 Oh, here’s Sugarland. She added that one essential line at the end of the song.

9:23 Gwyenth Paltrow is wearing a mirror ball. Dance party!

9:24 Radiohead is performing with the USC Marching Trojans. Man, first those guys get to play with Fleetwood Mac and now they’re backing up Radiohead. I wonder which was more rewarding.

9:25 Someday, future generations will worship Radiohead like we celebrate the Beatles.

9:27 Is it still Radiohead when it’s just Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood? Survey says, who cares? Radiohead in any form is better than anything else we’ve seen tonight.

9:28 OK, better than everything except Carrie Underwood’s legs – but I’m still not buying her album.

9:30 If you are still reading this, you are officially my new best friend. Please leave a comment to receive a special prize.

9:34 Justin Timberlake is performing in a coat and scarf. How did he know snow was in our forecast?

9:35 The stocking cap on T.I.’s head looks like a reservoir tip.

9:36 I don’t think switching back and forth between two distinct songs should count as collaboration. It’s more like a musical debate where the listener always loses.

9:38 Recording Academy president Neil Portnow rejected the traditional tirade against music piracy to talk about MusiCares and promote a Secretary of the Arts cabinet position.

9: 42 Portnow is done, but I’m kinda bummed he didn’t bring up piracy. I had a great line to use when he did: “Recording Academy president Neil Portnow is still talking about music piracy. This guy is slower than Rapidshare.”

9:44 Not even Smokey Robinsons sings the Four Tops as well as Levi Stubbs. Rest in peace, Levi.

9:45 It would be cool if the producers rounded up the remaining Funk Brothers as backing musicians for this Four Tops tribute.

9:52 Neil Diamond is singing “Sweet Caroline” and millions of Red Sox fans are crying because their season hasn’t started yet. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, boys.

9:54 Am I the only one that finds it kind of sad that Diamond’s expansive catalog has been reduced to just one song? And that “Sweet Caroline” is that song? It’s like if people only remembered Bob Dylan for “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).”

9:59 Paying tribute to Bo Diddley are Buddy Guy, B.B. King, John Mayer and Keith Urban (because you know if any two performers have influenced Urban’s style and career its Al Green and Bo Diddley). Best rhythm in rock and roll.

10:00 I make that joke earlier about Buddy Guy’s guitar and he shows up here playing a gold top Les Paul. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him rock a since his days on Vanguard.

10:08 Allen Toussaint is supposed to appear with Lil Wayne with Robin Thicke. I bet those two would be surprised to learn that Toussaint has written more hits than both of them combined.

10:10 I wonder why the producers haven’t rolled out one of those “for the first time ever” duets between Thicke and Timberlake? Probably because no one could tell them apart.

10:11 Allen Toussaint with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Terence Blanchard falls just short of topping Radiohead for best musical moment of the night – but it’s close. No American city makes more consistently fun music than New Orleans (although a case could be made for Memphis).

10:14 Will.I.Am just congratulated Obama. Who could have seen that coming? Next year, Will.I.Am will receive a record number of Grammy nominations for his album “Obamania: Songs About Barack Obama, Because I Love Barack Obama by Will.I.Am (for Barack Obama).”

10:24 Robert Plant and Allison Krauss are performing with T-Bone Burnett. Krauss’ hair keeps blowing back. Now I know why Justin Timberlake was wearing a coat and scar earlier.

10:25 I love “Raising Sand” as much as the next person, but that album came out in 2007. Why are the Grammys acting like it’s a new release?

10:26 The Grammys operate on such a loopy nomination calendar that a band’s previous and forthcoming albums can both be eligible at the same time.

10:27 The producers rightly made a big deal of T-Bone being on stage, but there was no mention of Buddy Miller holding down rhythm guitar. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to give Buddy props for being a spectacular musician.

10:28 Album of the Year goes to “Raising Sand.” If it wasn’t going to be “In Rainbows” this is where it should have gone. (Seriously, does anyone else find it odd that both of these albums were released 16 months ago?)

10:30 Robert Plant started his career in 1968. You can fill a matchbook with a list of all tonight’s performers and honorees we’ll still be talking about 40 years from now.

10:32 Stevie Wonder is playing us home. See you in seven years, Grammys!

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howlin-wolf

Above: The Wolf howls.

By Joel Francis

Leonard Chess’ motivation for buying the property on South Cottage Grove in Chicago that would become the Macomba Lounge was clear: he thought it would make money.

When his brother Phil got out of the Army in 1946, he went straight to work with his brother at the club. It was located in a rough black neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs, but within four years it was a prime haunt for both musicians and patrons.

The Macomba Lounge burnt to the ground in 1950, but the Chess brothers’ back-up plan was well underway. Shortly after buying the Macomba, the brothers established Aristocrat Records as a way to record the musicians who played the lounge. Instead of having the bands show up on Cottage Grove to play, they would show up at the Aristocrat offices several blocks down the street and record.

It was a far cry from the world the Polish immigrants born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz left. Their father was a shoemaker and the family of five lived in one large cement-floored room with no electricity, running water or heat. In the winter, the family brought their cow inside for warmth.

The timing for Aristocrat Records’ foray into “race” music couldn’t have been better. Five million African-Americans fled north to escape Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the second Great Migration. One of the emigrants was a Mississippi sharecropper who had been recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

McKinely Morganfield was a hot commodity at the juke joints and house parties around Stovall plantation, but he thirsted for bigger success and escape from the cotton fields. In 1943, he moved to Chicago, but his acoustic guitar and “country” style didn’t play as well. After a couple years driving trucks during the day and playing clubs by night, he was given an electric guitar. Bolstered by his new, amplified instrument, Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, married his native Delta blues style with the hard, electric soul of his new hometown.

In 1948, Waters cut two songs for Aristocrat that launched his career and established the Chess brothers as players in the music business. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” convinced Leonard and Phil the blues were the way to go, and they gradually started letting Waters bring his sidemen and other musicians in to cut sides. By the time the name of the label was changed to Chess Records in 1950, the label’s stable included harmonica king Little Walter, guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Jimmy Rodgers and bass maestro Willie Dixon.

A former boxer, Dixon was another Mississippi transplant and the architect of not only the Chess sound, but the post-World War II blues scene that continues to thrive today. Dixon was the Chess brothers’ right-hand man. While the brothers hovered around the blues scene they could only get so close. Dixon was in the scene, connected to all the major players and all the hot trends. Dixon had an ear to the track, but he forged his own path as well, writing the lion’s share of the genre’s biggest numbers: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Spoonful.” Rare was the Chess release that didn’t feature Dixon’s bass playing, songwriting or production skills – most had all three. When the blues caught on in England in the 1960s, Dixon arranged several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe that featured many of the day’s biggest stars (many of whom, coincidentally, also recorded for Chess). Dixon once said “I am the blues.” He was not bragging.

While Phil was in Chicago recording Dixon’s songs, Leonard was on the road promoting, meeting with distributors, disc jockeys and learning the business. On one trip to Memphis, Leonard made a contact who put him in touch with Sam Phillips. Phillips hadn’t established Sun Studios yet, but his legendary ear was already glued to the ground. Phillips sent Chess his recording of Ike Turner’s song “Rocket 88” recorded by Turner with singer Jackie Brenston and some songs by Chester Burnett.

The 300-pound Burnett was better known by his stage name, Howlin’ Wolf. Yet another Mississippi escapee, Wolf moved to Memphis after his military discharge following World War II and had a radio show in West Memphis, Ark. His company on the airways included Rufus Thomas and B.B. King. Like King, Wolf cut some albums for the Bihari brothers and Modern Records, but after Phillips slipped Chess a copy of “How Many More Years” a bidding war erupted for Wolf’s music. Chess won the battle and Wolf moved to Chicago to cut records with Dixon and compete with Waters on the legendary Maxwell Street blues scene.

Keep reading The True Story of Cadillac Records.
Part Two: Chess Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll
Part Three: The Final Days and Legacy of Chess Records

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