Category Archives: Pop

Rock ‘n’ Roll Memories


Rick Nelson was declared a teen idol at age 16, and continued his singing career as an adult.

Room 106 of the Guntersville Holiday Inn is a hallowed shrine along rock ’n’ roll’s sacred trail. It’s where one-time teen idol Ricky Nelson spent the last two days of his life before his untimely death on January 31, 1985. Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band were killed during the emergency landing of his blazing DC-3 (at one time owned by Jerry Lee Lewis) in a Texas cow pasture.

The International Rick Nelson Fan Club will celebrate the life and final days of the acclaimed singer October 19 and 20 at the Guntersville Holiday Inn.

Nelson had stopped in Guntersville for impromptu shows at PJ’s Alley, co-owned by his former guitarist Pat Upton. The Stone Canyon Band had just finished a Citrus Bowl appearance in Orlando, and decided to stop in Alabama for a couple of nights before a scheduled New Year’s Eve appearance in Dallas. That final show in Guntersville was eventually immortalized as the “Rave On” show by fanatical Ricky Nelson devotees, as Nelson closed the night with Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”

America grew up with Ricky Nelson in the 1950s through television’s “Ozzie and Harriet Show.” By age 16, Nelson had scored a Top Ten hit with “A Teenager’s Romance.” A performance of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” on the show yielded a million records sold in the week following the broadcast. Life magazine put him on the cover in 1958, coining the phrase “teen idol” for Nelson. By age 21, he had sold 35 million records, with nine gold singles.

Hailed by many as the only teen idol with any lasting influence on rock ’n’ roll, Ricky Nelson eventually dropped the “y” from his name in the 1970s and began recording country songs. He’s credited as a country rock pioneer, launching the careers of Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and Poco. After a round of booing at a 1972 Madison Square Garden show while trying to perform new songs, Nelson wrote the timeless classic “Garden Party.”

The International Rick Nelson Fan Club will celebrate the life and final days of the acclaimed singer October 19 and 20 at the Guntersville Holiday Inn. Events include a Rick Nelson look-alike contest and plenty of Nelson music. A permanent wall shrine entitled “The Last Two Days” has been erected in the hotel lobby, complete with photos and memories of Nelson’s final show. And most sacred of all, Room 106 has been christened the Rick Nelson Room and will be available for viewing. Call 256-582-2220 for details.

Dead Folks 2005, Music

Dead Folks 2005, Music

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.


By David Pelfrey, Ed Reynolds, J.R. Taylor

February 24, 2005
Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw (click for larger version)

Music fans, especially big band enthusiasts, love and respect Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. But if any were forced to take just one bandleader’s work to a desert island, or place the same CD or vinyl album in a time capsule, they might very well choose one by Artie Shaw (94). The clarinet-playing bandleader, in at least three recordings, offered definitive tracks of the swing era: the lilting “Frenesi” (a Shaw original last used to great effect in Woody Allen’s Radio Days), a flowing, magnificent arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” which practically blew Benny Goodman off the charts, and a stunning rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” one of the most instantly recognizable recordings in popular music. Another of Shaw’s compositions, “Nightmare,” is a sultry, gloomy three minutes that evolved into the distinctive sound of films noir, as the scores for countless detective thrillers and crime melodramas all hearken, in some way, to Shaw’s 1938 recording. Throw in the fact that Shaw was a virtuoso clarinetist with looks that made all the girls cry, and it’s understandable that in 1939 there wasn’t a bigger star in the music galaxy.

Shaw’s musical ability was not matched by an ability to win friends or influence people; he broke up bands almost as soon as they made the big time. He wasn’t an egotist, but as a pathological perfectionist he was often devoid of patience with anything or anybody. Oddly enough, that in no way prevented the exceedingly handsome musician from being a ladies’ man (Lana Turner and Ava Gardner are numbered among his many brides), nor did Shaw’s irascibility imply insensitivity. It was Shaw’s idea to work publicly with black composers and players (Billie Holiday was the band’s lead vocalist for a short while), and he was an outspoken advocate for black musicians throughout his career.

Nonetheless, he wasn’t called “the reluctant king of swing” for nothing. Shaw regarded celebrity as an impediment to creative excellence, so his public performances temporarily came to a halt just before 1940. He organized several other groups during the war years and began performing again, but he was never completely comfortable with touring. Although he was approaching new heights in the 1940s and 50s by moving away from swing and into jazz, in 1954 he simply walked away from the music scene to take up a number of other pursuits. —D.P.

Elmer Bernstein

Speaking of his collaboration with Bernstein (82), Martin Scorcese said, “It’s one thing to write music that reinforces a film, underscores it. It’s entirely another to write music that graces a film. That’s what Elmer Bernstein does, and that, for me, is his greatest gift.”

The gifted composer didn’t just create marvelous, memorable films scores; he elevated the lyric quality of incidental music in movies. Bernstein’s legacy includes more than 200 movie scores, 50 years in the film industry, and an inestimable influence on three generations of film composers. So engaging and appropriate were his best works that it is difficult to imagine certain films without their scores. The rousing theme to The Magnificent Seven (later the “Marlboro man” theme until cigarettes ads were banned from television) is a textbook example, being cowboy music par excellence; its distinct “great American West” motif derives from Aaron Copland, under whom Bernstein studied. The martial, upbeat march from The Great Escape (1963) is another instance where melody and tone perfectly suit subject and style. Yet if ever there was a movie score that defined a film’s style, it must be the pure jazz score (a first for a Hollywood film) for The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), a downbeat, gritty melodrama starring Frank Sinatra that dared to explore drug addiction. The first minutes of Bernstein’s gripping score pretty much establish that things aren’t going to go well.

Indeed, the composer had a natural ability to convey urban angst and mean-street sensibility, as the jazzy, sleazy themes for Sweet Smell of Success, Walk on the Wild Side, and Some Came Running indicate. Yet for minimal orchestration and gentle, lyric passages, Bernstein also displayed an innate skillfulness; the tender, wistful score for To Kill a Mockingbird is exhibit A in that regard. His music is also associated with Hollywood actors and icons, most obviously John Wayne, for whom Bernstein provided scores for The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, and several others. He worked with Martin Scorcese on seven projects, notably The Age of Innocence and The Grifters, the latter being an example of Bernstein’s interest in various offbeat and independent productions such as Rambling Rose, Far From Heaven, My Left Foot, and The Field.

Bernstein’s stunning versatility is apparent from this partial list of compositions: Hud, The World of Henry Orient, Animal House, The Gypsy Moths, An American Werewolf in London, The Carpetbaggers, The Great Santini, the ballet music for Oklahoma and Peter Pan, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, “The Films of Ray and Charles Eames,” and themes for “The Rookies,” “S.W.A.T.,” and “Ellery Queen.” —David Pelfrey


Jerry Goldsmith

Last year when the record label Varese Sarabande announced the release of a series of film scores entitled “Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox,” orders started coming in the next day. The first run of the boxed set sold out nine days later. Put another way, everybody digs Jerry Goldsmith (75). His name might not ring a bell, but the motion picture scores and television themes Goldsmith arranged or composed for more than half a century certainly do. A deadly serious student of music since the age of six, Goldsmith learned classical piano and absorbed music theory before taking a film music class at the University of Southern California (under legendary composer Miklos Rosza, no less). Afterwards he landed a pretty good gig at CBS, where he scored several episodes of a show that was getting a lot of attention called “The Twilight Zone.” Dozens more television commissions came, but Goldsmith’s acquaintance with another famous film composer, Alfred Newman, led to his long career in motion pictures. He began as a contract composer for 20th Century Fox, and then basically established himself as the sound of the movies. Even a partial list of his film scores and television themes is daunting: Alien, L.A. Confidential, Planet of the Apes, Chinatown, Patton, Seconds, Logan’s Run, In Like Flint, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Omen, Papillon, Basic Instinct, The Boys From Brazil, Poltergeist, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “The Waltons.” —D.P.

John McGeogh

Like any founding guitarist who’d been in classic—and still listenable—bands such as Siouxsie & The Banshees, Public Image, and Magazine, John McGeogh (48) had both gotten a day job (as a nurse) and was trying to record dance music by the end of the ’90s. That’s kind of a shame since McGeogh was probably one of the rare punks who really had the versatility to thrive as a session man. It’s certainly no secret that he was a huge influence on subsequent generations. At least to those funky punks who don’t try to get away with citing old blues guys as their heroes. —J.R.T.

Johnny Ramone


Johnny Ramone’s headstone (click for larger version)

He didn’t have many songwriting credits, and that’s probably not even him playing guitar on some of your later favorite Ramones songs. Still, Johnny Ramone (55) got to retire as the wealthiest member of the band because he had 100 percent of the merchandising rights. How did that happen? It’s a long story that certain people can’t wait to tell if certain long-awaited books don’t reveal the whole story. Suffice to say that Johnny benefited from being one of rock ‘n’ roll’s proud conservatives, cashing in on the hypocritical peacenik attitude of certain other band members. The greatest testimony to Johnny, however, is that he was always well-loved in the music community, even after expressing his support for President Bush while being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. We lost him to prostate cancer, which leaves C.J. and Marky to helm various tribute nights in the future. Jeffrey’s somewhere out there, too. —J.R.T.

Elvin Jones

The younger brother of pianist Hank and trumpeter/bandleader Thad was a drummer who changed the way we hear jazz. Jones (77) played with major figures like Sonny Rollins and J. J. Johnson in the ’50s, but it was with the iconoclastic quartet of John Coltrane (1960-66) that Jones’ fluid, polyrhythmic blankets of sound found their ideal setting. Jones’ beat was implied more than defined, and although one always knew where it was, the surrounding percussive accents and colors were endlessly fascinating, opening up the rhythmic options for the other players unlike what any drummer had done before, even since. Coltrane greatly appreciated Jones: “I especially like his ability to mix and juggle rhythms. He’s always aware of everything else that’s happening. I guess you could say he has the ability to be in three places at the same time.” Jones played on Coltrane’s classic albums My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme; he led his own bands from 1967 until his death, incubating such talent as Joe Farrell, Dave Liebman, Nicholas Payton, Joshua Redman, and Ravi Coltrane early in their careers. His unique approach, seemingly limitless ideas, and sheer power led many to regard Jones as the world’s greatest drummer, and following a much-ballyhooed “battle” with Cream’s Ginger Baker in the early ’70s, Jones became something of a celebrity, even appearing in the cult film Zachariah. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever sounding like him again. —B.G.

Rick James


Rick James (click for larger version)

The guy would’ve made an interesting footnote just for signing to Motown with bandmate Neil Young as the Mynah Birds back in the ’60s. Of course, Rick James (54) had to take a stranger path to fortune and disgrace. He finally got to make a record for Motown in 1978 and was a popular R&B star until the release of Street Songs in 1981. “Give It To Me Baby” and “Super Freak” were huge hits that made James briefly seem like another Prince in the rock-crossover sweepstakes. He was a steady performer through 1989—following his move to the Reprise label—but it still felt like nostalgia to the masses when MC Hammer sampled James for “U Can’t Touch This.” By then, James’ drug problems had plunged him into several embarrassing legal situations. He spent the ’90s with critics hoping for a comeback, but James’ last high profile moment was as a punch line in sketches on “The Dave Chappelle Show.” He was probably pretty happy with that, but any future opportunities—say, on VH1′s “The Surreal Life”—were lost after James’ death from a heart attack. At least he got to date Linda Blair. —J.R.T.

Illinois Jacquet

Tenor sax man Illinois Jacquet (82) was one of the jazz piledrivers: he typically hit his solos full throttle, with clearly developed musical phrases based in the sophisticated vocabulary of the great Lester Young, but run through a rough-edged dialect of Jacquet’s own creation. The latter included “honking,” later to be overdone by a multitude of R&B and rock horn players, and squealing in the altissimo range (i. e., above where the tenor is normally supposed to sound), an effect that was also subsequently overdone by lesser players. He became a star at 19 when he recorded a rousing solo on Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home” (1942), and was a featured player in the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts in the ’40s and ’50s. He also led a septet in that era that featured the likes of Fats Navarro and J. J. Johnson. After becoming the first jazz musician to serve a long-term residency at Harvard in the early 80s, Jacquet formed a his first big band, which had a big success, recording the irresistible Jacquet’s Got It (1987, Label M). Almost everyone who plays the tenor sax owes something to this guy. —B.G.

Robert Quine

Lefty hipsters were pissed off that Ronald Reagan’s death overshadowed not only the death of Ray Charles but that Robert Quine’s death was completely squeezed out of all the NYC newspapers. To be fair, Quine (61) was an innovative guitarist and overaged punk who—while unable to make Richard Hell & The Voidoids sound interesting—went on to a stellar career enhancing (and occasionally saving) the work of artists such as Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. Quine was depressed over the recent death of his wife, but don’t believe anyone who called his heroin overdose a suicide. If you want to see Quine in action, track down the 1983 concert DVD A Night with Lou Reed. —J.R.T.

Barney Kessel

One of the greats of jazz guitar, Kessell (80) was one of the first generation of guitarists influenced by Charlie Christian, and as an Okie from Muskogee (literally), the sole white member of local jazz bands. It was in that setting that he met Christian, perhaps the most influential jazz guitarist of all, and his direction was set. Kessell played in big bands (Artie Shaw’s, Charlie Barnet’s, and even Chico Marx’s), when Gjon Mili made the short film Jammin’ the Blues in 1944, Kessell was again the only white face, but since an integrated ensemble was not to be shown on the screen, he remained in shadow or silhouette.

Kessel became famous after recording with Charlie Parker (1947) and touring with Oscar Peterson (1952-1953), but it’s likely that many more people heard his studio recordings with pop artists, from Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” to his work with Elvis, Rick Nelson, and the Beach Boys, to numerous movies and TV shows. Phil Spector was his student and protégé; Kessel advised the young man to get into record production and later played on almost all of Spector’s big hits (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” et al.). He introduced Brian Wilson to the theremin that was used on “Good Vibrations” and Pete Townshend wrote a song in honor of Kessel after the latter’s 1969-70 residency in London. Throughout, Kessel found time to make numerous jazz recordings, and from 1976 on toured with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd as The Great Guitars. —Bart Grooms

Randy VanWarmer

There was a brief window of opportunity in the late ’70s when lite-pop songwriters discovered they could put on a skinny tie and seem vaguely cool while turning out mellow sounds. Randy VanWarmer was able to break through with the modest hit “Just When I Needed You Most”—modest in its humble wimpiness, that is. The song still made it to number four on the Billboard charts. The solo career went downhill from there, but VanWarmer (48) was already establishing himself as a hit songwriter for country acts. The band Alabama scored with “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why),” one of VanWarmer’s earliest compositions. VanWarmer would spend most of his subsequent career in Nashville—including a brief comeback as a solo artist in 1988—although he was settled in Seattle when he finally succumbed to leukemia. —J.R.T.

Jerry Scoggins

Jerry Scoggins’ (93) rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” is one of the best known musical motifs in television history. The show originally ran from 1962 to 1971, with 60 million viewers at one point. Accompanying Scoggins on the theme were bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. —E.R.

Hank Garland

As king of the Nashville studio guitarists, Hank Garland (74) was in constant demand. Switching effortlessly between jazz and country, he played with an impressive list of performers ranging from Elvis Presley to Roy Orbison to Patsy Cline to Charlie Parker. He pioneered the use of the electric guitar at the Grand Ole Opry. A 1961 car wreck left Garland in a coma for months. When he regained consciousness, he received more than 100 electroshock treatments that forced him to relearn not only how to play the guitar, but also how to walk and talk again. —E.R.

Terry Melcher

Many people wanted to kill Terry Melcher (62) for co-writing “Kokomo” with the Beach Boys, but Charles Manson had a personal grudge against Doris Day’s son. As an A&R man in the wake of his early days guiding The Byrds, Melcher passed on Manson as a recording artist. Charlie was also still pissed about the Beach Boys altering his song “Cease to Exist,” so Melcher’s association with the band didn’t help matters. Anyway, Melcher moved out of the house he was renting, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate moved in, and the speculation continues about how things might have changed if Charlie had kept his address book up-to-date. Melcher kept working with some of the great pop acts of the era, and the ’60s lost a key figure when the California icon passed away from cancer. —J.R. Taylor


Billy May

He could have retired in 1942 as a brilliant arranger, but Billy May (87) was lured away from his staff position at Capitol Records to provide Frank Sinatra with some of his most unforgettable and brassy settings. The association began with “Come Fly With Me” in 1957 and continued to the end of the ’70s. —J.R.T.

Ernie Ball

Every would-be star who has attempted to play a screaming guitar solo is intimately familiar with Ernie Ball Slinky guitar strings and their neon-colored packages. Endorsed by the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and a million other rock stars, Ernie Ball strings are sold in more than 5,500 music stores in the United States and 75 other countries. They were made to be stretched, but, inevitably, they do break, thereby simultaneously rendering them the most revered and cursed guitar string in the world. Ball was 74. —Ed Reynolds.

Jan Berry

As one half of the duo Jan and Dean, Jan Berry (62) and partner Dean Torrence pioneered the surf music sound with hits such as “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Surf City,” and “The Little Old Lady (From Pasadena).” Berry had been in poor health for much of his life after suffering brain damage in a car crash in 1966. —E.R.

Al Dvorin

Al Dvorin was the concert emcee who made the phrase “Elvis has left the building” a staple of pop culture. The 81-year-old Dvorin was thrown from his car following an accident on a California desert highway after delivering his famous line at the conclusion of an Elvis impersonator contest. —E.R.

Estelle Axton

Estelle Axton (85) was the “ax” in Stax Records, which she started with her brother James Stewart (he was the “St”). Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, and the Staple Singers were just a few on the Stax roster of hitmakers. Her son Packy Axton was saxophonist for the Mar-Keys, an instrumental group on the label that often accompanied the singers. She later took over her son’s record label Fretone Records, whose only hit was in 1976 with the novelty “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees. —E.R.

Johnny Bragg

Leader of The Prisonaires, a singing group composed of black Tennessee State Penitentiary inmates that put Sun Records on the map with the hit “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” Johnny Bragg (79) and his fellow convicts traveled under heavy guard to Memphis to record in 1953. In 1961, Elvis Presley visited Bragg (who had been convicted of rape in 1943), in prison. The Prisonaires were among the first rhythm and blues groups to have hit records in the South. —E.R.

Alvino Rey

As a bandleader who made the steel guitar popular during the swing era, Rey (95) billed himself as “King of the Guitar.” Rey had a hit in 1942 with “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” —E.R.

John Peel

To discerning music fans, John Peel (65) was best known as the legendary BBC radio DJ who promoted any number of really forgettable ’80s acts via assorted live “Peel Sessions” releases. There’s certainly no denying that Peel got really excited about way too many forgettable art/punk/new-wave/grunge acts over the years. In his defense, though, Peel would often just as easily lose interest in the struggling acts that he would grace with needed airplay. At least he was always interested in new acts, which was pretty good for a guy who’d been spinning discs since 1965. Peel could legitimately claim much credit for breaking acts ranging from David Bowie to The Smiths. —J.R.T.

Lacy Van Zant

He couldn’t match the output of Olivia Osmond, but Lacy Van Zant (89) made an impressive musical contribution through his rockin’ DNA. This ultimate band parent oversaw the Southern Rock dynasty of Ronnie, Johnny, and Donnie—which covers two Lynyrd Skynyrd vocalists (one, sadly, deceased) and a member of the underrated .38 Special. Van Zant worked hard to help out his kids in their early musical years, and his home also served as a museum. Lacy looked the role, too, with a long white beard and a penchant for overalls. If his image hasn’t been put on an album cover, it should be. —J.R.T.

Timi Yuro

She was pretty much forgotten at the time of her death, but Timi Yuro (63) cast a striking figure while ruling the early ’60s charts with gloriously overwrought tunes such as “Hurt” and “I Apologize.” Despite the exotic name, she was pure American pop. Still, it didn’t even help her career when Morrissey singled her out as his favorite vocalist in the 1984 tour program for the Smiths’ Meat is Murder tour. While the subject matter helped, Morrissey might have also been influenced by Yuro’s bizarre ability to look androgynous even when dolled up in evening gowns. —J.R.T.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux

She made some forgettable Parisian punk, but Lizzy Mercier Descloux (47) went out as a goddess to French hipsters. The very young gal was hanging out in NYC during the days of the New York Dolls, and she made it back to Paris in time to start up a pioneering punk clothing boutique. Descloux eventually went into the studio with her musician pals to record two fairly useless albums at the end of the ’70s. (This past year’s CD reissues reminded us why she was promoted mainly as a moody sex symbol.) Nobody was paying much attention to Descloux when she suddenly came up with an international chart hit in 1984. “Mais où sont passées les gazelles” was recorded with South African musicians about two years before Paul Simon got the idea, and the World Music genre was suddenly off and running. Descloux didn’t benefit much, though. Her major-label career was over by the ’90s, and she had moved on to a successful career as a painter before succumbing to cancer. —J.R.T

Alf Bicknell

From 1964 to 1966, Alfred George Bicknell (75) chauffeured The Beatles to concerts and other appearances. The inspiration for the song “Drive My Car,” Bicknell wrote the 1999 autobiography Ticket to Ride: The Ultimate Beatles Tour Diary!, in which he recalled the moment John Lennon reportedly snatched his chauffeur’s cap from his head and declared, “You don’t need that anymore, Alf. You are one of us now.” After The Beatles ceased touring, the former circus clown began driving business executives. A chainsaw accident ended his driving career in 1980, and he joined a Beatles convention circuit giving speeches and selling memorabilia. —E.R.

Skeeter Davis

One of the few women who serve as both a footnote and a legend, Skeeter Davis (72) spent her very long career skirting the pop and country markets. She started out as a rockabilly pioneer with her partner Betty Jack Davis, in 1953, before the duo ended up in an automobile accident that left her as a solo act. It took another decade before she finally became a huge solo star with “The End of the World.” Her public profile would later be that of a one-hit wonder. Within the Nashville scene, though, Davis was much admired and often sought out for duets. She aged pretty well, too, as NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato noticed when he began courting her back in the ’80s. —J.R.T.

Arthur Kane

You can find at least two CD booklets from the ’90s that refer to the late Arthur Kane, while others believed that the New York Dolls’ bass player had simply disappeared after a jilted groupie cut off his thumbs. The only person who seemed willing to insist that Kane (55) was still alive was Keith Richards, and everybody probably thought that was just a hallucination. Anyway, Kane made a triumphant reemergence with his old band in 2004, after Morrissey invited the Dolls to perform at a UK music festival he was curating. Sadly, Kane succumbed to leukemia before the Dolls could follow up with any American dates. —J.R.T

City Hall — Funding Travel to George W. Bush’s 2nd Inauguration


February 24, 2005

On February 15, at the request of Councilor Bert Miller, the Birmingham City Council voted to pay the travel expenses of local businessman Richard Finley to attend President George W. Bush’s second inauguration in Washington, D.C. The council initially declined to act on the expenditure when Councilor Elias Hendricks demanded to know what the benefit was to the city. After he was located near the conclusion of the city council meeting, Finley addressed the council himself.

“I was invited by the President [Bush],” said Finley, who is chairman of the Alabama Republican Council, the oldest active black GOP organization in the state. “After talking with Councilor Miller about the opportunities to network while we were there, and to meet on some things that we are talking about, he decided that he wanted to participate in covering the expenses. My expenses were well over $3,000. He said he wanted to pick up part of it. So I said, ‘Well, OK, you take care of the travel [$742.50],’ and he did that.” Finley said he also had the opportunity to meet with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and offered to huddle individually with councilors to share the conversation. Finley added that he also spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “So, I think there were a lot of benefits for the city that came out of a lot of contacts,” he surmised.


During a Tuesday press conference, Mayor Bernard Kincaid expressed misgivings about the city covering the expense. Kincaid added that the city council had already signed off on the payment from the council’s travel fund. The Mayor said that since the council had approved the expenditure, it didn’t make any sense to say no. “I had serious concerns about signing it,” said Kincaid, adding that he and Chief of Staff Al Herbert argued over whether the administrative side of City Hall should comply. “In my view, [the trip] had marginal utility [to the city],” said the Mayor. He did concede that there perhaps was a benefit to Finley’s attending. “It’s no secret that Richard Finley is a Republican,” said the Mayor. “It might be that his being there or his rubbing elbows with colleagues and things could benefit the city . . . In tight times you have to make choices. That would not have been a spending choice that I would have made.” Kincaid added that he would not approve someone from his staff attending a presidential inauguration at the city’s expense.

Councilor Carol Reynolds voted to approve the inaugural trip, but only because she had travel expenses to Savannah for the National League of Cities Leadership Training Institute on the same item. Had the two expenses been on separate items, she said she would not have voted to approve Finley’s trip. “I’ve got some questions to ask the Law Department about some of this stuff,” the concerned councilor added. Council President Lee Loder and Councilor Joel Montgomery both abstained.

Councilor Elias Hendricks voted against the presidential inauguration expense. In an interview two days after the council meeting, Hendricks said that he was not swayed to support the item after Finley’s explanation to the city council. “It’s not an effective use of public funds,” said the councilor. “But that’s [Bert Miller's] discretionary funds. It’s his call.” Hendricks added that the fact that Finley met with Clarence Thomas “didn’t help any.”

The Set List — Roberta Flack

By Ed Reynolds and Bart Grooms

Roberta Flack has made a career singing boring pop that has about as much passion as Liza Minelli or Phoebe Snow. So it’s hard to fathom that a breathtaking song on Flack’s debut album First Take that Clint Eastwood demanded be included on the soundtrack of his film Play Misty for Me rates as a true 24-karat masterpiece. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is nothing short of spellbinding, an awe-inspiring, hypnotic slice of musical history that rarely fails to make one stop whatever they’re doing and simply listen. To her credit, Flack told music big shots and producers overseeing her career to take a hike when told to speed up the tempo. Instead, her voice approaches each phrase with a delicate caress. Too bad she couldn’t pull off that neat trick again with “Killing Me Softly,” “Where is the Love [with the late Donny Hathaway],” “The Closer I Get to You,” and, of course, the thoroughly irritating “Tonight I Celebrate My Love for You.” (Saturday, January 22, at the BJCC Concert Hall) —Ed Reynolds

Roberta Flack (click for larger version)

Regina Carter


Regina Carter (click for larger version)

Although she later received classical training, violinist Regina Carter began the way many of her jazz forbearers did—playing by ear. She later mastered written music and theory, but as she puts it, “I think that kind of experience has freed my playing up a lot more, so I’m not stuck on the page. A lot of people are afraid not to have a piece of music in front of them.” She sees her mission as expanding the profile of and approach to her instrument, and to this end she plays in an aggressive, often percussive manner that recalls the great Stuff Smith’s bluesy swagger more than, say, Stéphane Grappelli’s more refined style. “Instead of being so melodic,” states the fiddler, “which I can be, I tend to use the instrument in more of a rhythmic way, using vamp rhythms or a lot of syncopated rhythms, approaching it more like a horn player does. So, I don’t feel that I have a lot of limitations —I feel like I can do anything.” Indeed, what she can do is pretty striking, and her quintet’s ASC concert on Saturday, January 22, at 8 p.m. will give us an opportunity to hear for ourselves. Until then, her beguiling duet album with master pianist Kenny Barron (Freefall, on Verve) is highly recommended. Tickets are $46, $36, and $26; For more information call 975-2787 or visit —Bart Grooms

Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present

Liberace, the Chipmunks, and the Vienna Boys’ Choir as Proustian moments? The author makes a compelling case.

By Ed Reynolds

December 16, 2004

The best thing about Christmas music is that it has a three- to four-week life span, so before you grow completely sick of the songs, they’re gone—at least until next year. Holiday musical offerings exist in every genre imaginable, and a new batch is cooked up every year to generate cash flow for somebody somewhere. Most of the current stuff is boring and predictable—either too happy, too rocking, or too sentimental. The traditional elements are severely lacking. And while it might be a stretch to include Christmas favorites like “The Chipmunk Song” and Liberace’s version of “Silver Bells” as anything remotely traditional, they’re among a handful of favorites that keep impostors off my record player this time of year.

“The Chipmunk Song”

(Click Here to listen to this song)


The first time this song made a real impact, with its circus carousel-invoking melody and high-pitched voices singing, “Me, I want a Hula Hoop,” was one July spent at the home of family friends in Cocoa Beach, Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. (The distant sky would glow through their living room window when rockets were launched at the Cape.) Not being very fond of the water, much less what might be lurking on the ocean floor, I spent much of my vacation time with their teenage daughter’s collection of 45 rpm records. “The Chipmunk Song” soon became my favorite, which made me the object of the girl’s endless ridicule. She repeatedly told me that if I knew anything about music I’d be listening to Nat King Cole’s “Ramblin’ Rose.”

(click for larger version)

The Chipmunks became a Christmas obsession. The evolution of their creator, Ross Bagdasarian, is an interesting pop music footnote. Bagdasarian, who played a songwriter in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, also composed “Come On-a My House,” the 1951 hit that made Rosemary Clooney a star. (Mitch Miller convinced Clooney to record the song despite her objections that it was a silly novelty tune, a genre in which Bagdasarian proved his expertise during the ensuing decade.) Singing as David Seville, Bagdasarian made the pop charts in 1958 with “The Witch Doctor” (the chorus: “ooh eee ooh ah ah; ting tang wallah wallah bing bang”).

This was Bagdasarian’s first time to experiment with recording himself at normal speed, then speeding up the tape to create what later became a pop phenomenon, The Chipmunks. Bagdasarian’s original notion was that the sped-up recording emulated rabbits and butterflies, until his young children convinced him that the voices sounded like chipmunks. In 1958 he introduced Alvin, Simon, and Theodore singing the Christmas classic, “The Chipmunk Song.”

As an adult, I would probably choose the catalog of Nat King Cole over that of The Chipmunks. But if it comes down to a single song, I’ll take “The Chipmunk Song” over “Ramblin’ Rose” any time of year.

“In the Bleak Mid-Winter”

(Click Here to listen to this song)

The a capella recording of this traditional ode to the tortuous cold of winter by Birmingham’s Independent Presbyterian Church Choir is the most breathtaking version I’ve ever heard. Oddly, the melody first came to me in the form of Muzak at a thrift store in Midfield one Christmas season around 15 years ago. It was the perfect soundtrack for mingling with the lower class in a secondhand clothing and appliance store.

A couple of years later I discovered the IPC Choir’s rendering on their mid-1980s album The Joyous Birth. The composer of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter” was indicated as Gustav Holst. But a recent conversation with retired IPC choirmaster Joseph Schreiber, who directed the choir and played the organ at the church for 34 years (including during recording of the song), revealed shock on his part that Holst and not Harold Darke was listed as the writer. A web search indicated both men listed as the composer, among several others [Darke in 1911, and Holst in 1906]. The lyrics originated half a century earlier in a poem by Christina Rossetti. Still, Schreiber insists that Darke is the true writer. “It’s gorgeous, kind of haunting,” Schreiber describes, obviously touched by the memories of his choir’s performances.

“Haunting” is an understatement. The first couple of phrases, “In the bleak mid-winter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” paint a desolate picture that sends chills down the spine when accompanied by the eerie but exquisite melody. As for that Midfield thrift store, now known as America’s Thrift Store, it remains a Christmas favorite as well.

“Silver Bells” by Liberace

(Click Here to listen to this song)

My mother forced piano lessons down my nine-year-old throat, insisting all the way that I would thank her one day. Of course, years later I realized she was right and I was wrong. But before she was right, whenever neighborhood kids found out I was taking piano I was taunted with “You’re a queer like Liberace!” “Am not,” I replied. Nevertheless, the taunts were humbling and embarrassing.

Twenty years later I came to appreciate Liberace, entertained as much by his feminine ways as his sentimental, crescendo-laden runs up and down the keyboard. But what’s so intriguing about his version of “Silver Bells” is his vocal styling. Naturally campy yet irresistibly sincere, his voice is anything but pretty. It’s tough to describe. He sounds so . . . Liberace.

Placido Domingo and The Vienna Choir Boys

(Click Here to listen to the Schubert arrangement of “Ave Maria”)

The Vienna Choir Boys was the first live musical act with which I recall being smitten when I was about eight. A version of the Choir Boys came through Selma one Christmas, and I was forced to attend with my mother because my father refused to go. It was like an epiphany the first time I heard them in person. I was astonished that a bunch of kids my age could sound like angels. Their interpretation of “Silent Night” was stunning.

The recording with Placido Domingo remains a Christmas favorite. They perform both the Bach-Gounod and Schubert renditions of “Ave Maria” in addition to “Adeste Fideles (Oh Come All Ye Faithful).” I had another epiphany while listening to the Choir Boys this Christmas: they sound a lot like The Chipmunks.

All On a Wintry Night by Judy Collins

(Click Here to listen to Collins’ version of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”)

I discovered this collection when it was released in Christmas 2000 because I was doing a story on Collins’ performance at the Ritz Theatre in Talladega. Included here are Collins’ lovely originals “Song for Sarajevo (I Dream of Peace)” and a duet with actress Tyne Daly on “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” a song Collins told me she was not familiar with until Daly brought it to her attention.

Christmas of 2000 was one of the more memorable ones due to the political climate. Controversy surrounding the Florida vote tally after the presidential election consumed attentions usually given to the holiday spirit. Forget peace on earth; it wasn’t even going to exist in America that holiday season. Collins was scheduled to perform in Florida’s Broward County the night after the Talladega concert, and I’ll never forget prompting a hearty laugh from her backstage after the show when I asked to whom she would dedicate “Send in the Clowns” the following evening. &

Staff writer Ed Reynolds thinks The Chipmunks could have been as big as Elvis if they’d only had better management.

One Fine Evening

One Fine Evening

Carole King proves that she’s still the queen of song.


September 23, 2004 

As the sun set on Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta in late July, the final rays of the day glimmered off the glossy black grand piano at stage center. A pair of lamps, towering potted plants, a couch, and a couple of plush thrift-store chairs decorated the stage. A posh audience peeled shrimp, uncorked wine, and chatted incessantly. It took a full 10 seconds for the high-brows to realize that Carole King had wandered onto the stage and was waiting patiently (and somewhat slightly embarrassed) for their acknowledgement. King, who is still easy on the eyes at 62, smiled as a smattering of applause erupted into a standing ovation. After bowing ceremoniously and taking her seat behind the piano, she flicked on the small lamp above the instrument and pounded out the opening chords to “Home Again,” her dirty-blond curls bouncing in time to her prancing fingers. Due to King’s notorious stage fright, she rarely gives live performances. This was her first tour in more than a decade, and I was fortunate enough to be in the front row witnessing a performance I’d been waiting my entire life to see.

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It’s been more than four decades since the songs of Carole King and her former husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin, ignited a 1960s phenomenon known as “girl groups.” The Shirelles scored one of their earliest hits in 1960 with the couple’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” The Cookies recorded “Chains” (which later became an even bigger hit for The Beatles); the controversial “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” was recorded by The Crystals in 1962, while The Chiffons put the irresistible “One Fine Day” on the pop charts in 1963. Other artists began paying attention, and soon The Animals added a tone of danger to King’s music with their foreboding version of “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

Her songs also found a niche in the 1966 bubblegum craze: “Pleasant Valley Sunday” by The Monkees; “I’m Into Something Good” by Herman’s Hermits; and Donny Osmond with the syrupy “Go Away Little Girl” and “Hey Girl.” Her babysitter landed in the Top 40 as Little Eva singing “The Loco-Motion,” the vocals of which sounded suspiciously close to King’s. Aretha Franklin recorded a soulful version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Blood, Sweat, and Tears covered “That Old Sweet Roll (Hi De Ho).”


Her voice, never a thing of beauty but nevertheless always a perfect fit, has aged with a ragged edge that adds a touch of oddly refined dignity and genuine personality.

King was a prominent pioneer in modern pop music at a time when it was a man’s world. Yet despite the legacy of her influence on early rock’n’roll, 1971′s Tapestry remains King’s masterpiece. Her two previous albums received little response, but Tapestry was the record that made King a star. It sold in the millions before such numbers were relatively common in the music industry (current sales of Tapestry are over 15 million). The record introduced a new genre: soft rock. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “I Feel the Earth Move, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Home Again,” “Tapestry,” “It’s Too Late,” and the sentimental “So Far Away” brought hippies from the edge to the middle of the road, and suddenly the piano was almost as hip as the electric guitar.

Carole King has dubbed her summer concert itinerary “The Living Room Tour.” She had been stumping for presidential candidate John Kerry, going into rich folks’ homes to raise money and, inevitably, to play a song or two. King decided that an intimate series of shows armed with only her piano and a couple of acoustic guitarists (who wisely stayed out of the way for much of the evening) would be a good way to spend the summer. Surprisingly, the only political grandstanding of the evening came when King plugged wilderness protection near her Idaho home (“I moved to Idaho after Tapestry when heavy metal appeared,” King told the audience, laughing) and demanded that people register to vote, regardless of their choice of candidates.


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Her voice, never a thing of beauty but nevertheless always a perfect fit, has aged with a ragged edge that adds a touch of oddly refined dignity and genuine personality. The only glaring negative was a near-condescending moment when she and the guitarists decided to “write a song from scratch” to give the crowd a taste of the mystery of songwriting—which is really not so mysterious considering that probably 99 percent of the audience had invented an equally stupid little tune at some point in their lives, even if it were only making up melodies to nursery rhymes as kids.

Several of her 1960s hits recorded by others were lumped into a medley, which was understandable given time constraints. A verse and chorus of “Go Away Little Girl,” in which King wished aloud that Donny Osmond was present to perform a duet with her (which would’ve made a near-perfect evening even finer) was certainly better than nothing. A surprising highlight was a full rendition of her Monkees hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Throughout the evening, she chatted amicably to the audience between songs, engaging in stories behind the creation of some of her biggest hits. It really was like having Carole King playing piano in your living room—if your home had been invaded by a wine and cheese brigade staffed by balding, affluent men and middle-aged women with fake breasts and skirts too short for ex-hippies hoisting glasses of Burgundy in toast to Carole King. &

Set List: Ludacris, Tobi Keith, The Isley Brothers, and more


The Set List


July 29, 2004Little Charlie and the Nightcats
In a world saturated with bad blues acts, swing and jump blues masters Little Charlie and the Nightcats provide redemption for the most worn-out genre in the history of music. They’re the best blues band in the world. Despite Charlie Baty’s talent at dashing off clever and tasteful guitar licks, the real show-stealer is harmonica virtuoso and wry vocalist Rick Estrin. (Estrin’s immaculate, eye-popping suits are worth the price of admission alone.) His gangster persona never fails to entertain. (Saturday, July 31, at Workplay; 7 p.m.; $15-$17.) — Ed Reynolds

Mac McAnally
He started out as the Warren Zevon for the Jimmy Buffet set. Mac McAnally then spent the ’80s putting out great country-pop albums that could’ve spared us the Americana movement had they been more successful. Fortunately, he’s been covered enough to guarantee that labels would fund his own string of ’90s releases (most of which went straight to the cheap bins). The patronage of David Geffen has also ensured the occasional windfall from projects like the soundtrack to The Prince of Egypt. Europeans still haven’t discovered McAnally as a cult figure, though, most likely because very few recording artists can do justice to his unashamedly emotional tunes. Adrienne Barbeau has recorded an impressively torchy version of “All These Years,” though. (Tuesday, August 3, at Zydeco; 8 p.m. $15.) —J.R. Taylor

Little Charlie and the Nightcats (click for larger version)


Don’t mistake this for a KISS reunion tour. It’s really another fine summer cash-in, but it pales next to the potential of the Gene Simmons solo tour we should be enjoying. Poison deserves the privileged opening slot, though, since they were always The Ramones in spandex. Nobody wrote better pop songs about girls and best friends—at least, for about two years back in the ’80s. Here’s a Don Dokken quote that really sums up the band’s long career: “Poison’s having the last laugh on all of us. It makes me feel like I wasted a lot of time practicing guitar and reading poetry.” (Tuesday, August 3, at Verizon Music Center; 7:30 p.m. $25-$60 R.S.) —J.R. Taylor


Poison (click for larger version)

Garrison Starr
Don’t blame Hilary Duff because Garrison Starr isn’t on a major label. Airstreams & Satellites is an album worthy of any woman who’s been around long enough to be Duff’s mom. True adult pop still doesn’t sell—but if it did, Starr’s defiant jangle-pop would ensure that her posters covered the bedroom walls of many beleaguered adults. (Wednesday, August 4, at Workplay; 8 p.m. $17; Laser’s Edge in-store concert; TBA; free admission.) —J.R. Taylor

Toby Keith/Terri Clark
They’re still terrified of Southern rednecks, so Toby Keith has certainly done his part to keep country scary for the national media. The press will never get close enough to appreciate his complexity, either. In that same spirit, Terri Clark’s new Greatest Hits collection showcases one of country’s most bizarre femmes—or soft butches, as the case may be—who has an angry sexuality that doesn’t scare away the fans of her fun and tuneful work. (Thursday, August 5, at Verizon Music Center; 7:30 p.m. $32-$64.) —J.R. Taylor

Ludacris/Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz/Sleepy Brown/David Banner
Everybody knows Ludacris is so crazy, and Sleepy Brown is still an unknown quantity when not performing with Outkast. That leaves David Banner, who is this bill’s biggest deal as the critics’ darling of Crunk—mostly because he adds a spiritual spin to rapping about the joys of bouncing along in a Cadillac. Banner also has an impressive stash of instrumental tricks, and everyone likes the idea of storytellers coming out of Mississippi. Lil Jon & the East Side Boys, however, remain the true Kings of Crunk, and not just because they used the word as an album title back in 2002. Their big jeep beats are the closest that Southern hip-hop will ever get to matching the stigma of bad Southern Rock blaring from Camaros. (Friday, August 6, at Alabama State Fairgrounds; 7 p.m. $25 per day; $40 for weekend.) —J.R. Taylor

The Isley Brothers featuring Ronald Isley/The Gap Band/Bobby Womack/Avant/The Bar-Kays
The Isley Brothers are back to being chart-topping pop stars, so there’s little to add there. The Gap Band and The Bar-Kays are equally iconic as vanguards of funk. So that leaves Bobby Womack sorely in need of being remembered as a soulful crooner whose long, long career has him defining any number of genres. This singer/songwriter has plenty of hits to fill his stage time, but Womack could’ve also built an entire alternate career out of some stunning album tracks. He’s still a great live act, too. Avant also appears as the token young-blood soul man who’s probably thrilled to share a bill with guys who were legends before he was born. (Saturday, August 7, at Alabama State Fairgrounds; 5 p.m. $25 per day; $40 for weekend.) —J.R. Taylor


The Isley Brothers (click for larger version)

Bobby Womack
When Bobby Womack was a young man singing in a gospel group with his four brothers, his father, Friendly Sr., warned of eternal damnation if his son went secular, which acquaintance Sam Cooke was encouraging him to do. So what did Womack do? He convinced his brothers to join him on the secular circuit despite threats of damnation. They changed their name from the Womacks to the Valentinos, and released a pair of songs written by Bobby that would be famously recorded by The Rolling Stones ["It's All Over Now"] and The J. Geils Band ["Lookin' for a Love"]. After going solo, Womack later penned many songs for Wilson Pickett (including “I’m a Midnight Mover” and “I’m in Love”) and recorded in the studio or performed live with acts such as Ray Charles, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Sly & the Family Stone. As a solo artist, he had a string of R&B hits, including “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” and the blaxploitation classic “Across 110th Street” (last heard on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown).

Bobby Womack (click for larger version)

But despite his success, Bobby Womack might have wondered if his dad had been right, because tragedy was not far behind. Womack married Sam Cooke’s wife a few months after Cooke’s murder. The resulting ill will in the R&B community stalled his career, and he began battling a drug addiction that almost killed him. In 1974, Womack’s brother was stabbed to death by his girlfriend at Bobby’s home, and in 1978, Womack’s son Truth Bobby died at the age of four months. Another son committed suicide at age 21.

Throughout his adversity, Womack continued to record and was generally known as a bit of an iconoclast. At one point in the late ’70s, Womack badgered his reluctant label into letting him do a full album of country music, something he’d always loved but that the label regarded as commercially inadvisable. The album, BW Goes C&W, sold poorly. What’s more unfortunate is that the label didn’t release it under the title Womack reportedly wanted: Step Aside, Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger a Try.

Womack’s output slowed throughout the ’80s and ’90s. His last studio recordings were a 1994 album for the label owned by friend Ron Wood and a 1997 gospel album, Back to My Roots. (Saturday, August 7 at Alabama State Fairgrounds, August 6 through 8; $25 per day, $40 for the weekend.) — Ed Reynolds

White Animals
The White Animals date back to precious days when a band had to be sure they had good songs before investing in studio time. They’d be D.I.Y. legends if they’d been turning out bad punk rock. Instead, the White Animals deserve to be heroes of jam bands everywhere for pioneering trashy frat-rock that bespoke a World Music collection instead of a token reggae LP. Actually, they’re probably responsible for a lot of really bad music from bands that followed in their wake. At least their recent originals are pretty good, and they’re touring seldom enough to make this show worth seeing. (Saturday, August 7, at Zydeco; 10 p.m. $10-$12.) —J.R. Taylor

Patterson Hood
In retrospect, Patterson Hood had little to worry about at the start of 2001. His band, the Drive-By Truckers, was already getting more press than any other project from this rapidly aging rocker. Any musician about to tour behind a popular album doesn’t get much sympathy for being recently divorced, either. Hood nevertheless worked out all of his bad feelings in his living room on his new solo album, Killers and Stars—a pleasant diversion from the determined Southern goth of the Truckers. The album is less of a singer/songwriter bid than a look at the self-loathing and self-obsession that eventually turn into grander obsessions for the band project. Hood’s feeling much better, of course, and maybe this solo appearance will bring up some of the poppier tendencies that some of us still hope to hear again. (Thursday, August 12, at Workplay; 9 p.m. $12.) —J.R. Taylor

Dave Alvin


Dave Alvin


June 17, 2004

Dave Alvin staked his claim as a guitar-ripping hero during a rockabilly revival on the West Coast in 1980, forming The Blasters with his brother Phil and a couple of friends from their hometown of Downey, California. Their song “American Music” found a home as the theme for the campy, late-night television show “New Wave Theater,” a sort of post-modern “American Bandstand” that featured some of the art punk world’s more obscure acts, with a little frantic California rock ‘n’ roll tossed in for good measure. Alvin’s incessant feuds with his brother were legendary, as battles often erupted in public, like the famous bout that occurred on NBC’s “The Today Show,” which forced the band’s manager to forbid the two from giving interviews together. Phil Alvin quit playing for a few years in the late 1980s to pursue his dream of writing a mathematical thesis, while Dave eventually joined the band X and its offshoot, The Knitters, before settling into a solo career in 1987. His songwriting has drifted brilliantly through lovely Mexican ballads, country-flavored folk rock, and bone-crushing rockabilly blues. On his latest album, Ashgrove, Alvin returns to his electric guitar roots.

Black & White: What prompted you to return to electric guitars on Ashgrove as opposed to the acoustic style you’ve used for the past several years?
Dave Alvin:
I always let the songs dictate the way they wanted to sound, whereas years ago in The Blasters it was the other way around—the band sort of dictated how the songs would sound. I’ve done a couple of live albums to placate the fans who like the loud stuff, and then in the studio I’ve sort of enjoyed doing the more acoustic stuff. But part of it was also economics. It’s difficult to record loud live in the studio. But we found a great little studio to cut the basics in, and it was very inexpensive with a good, young engineer and the right players and everything . . . It was right for me. I had the amp right next to me. I knew that the bulk of the songs were saying, “Play me loud [laughs].”



Dave Alvin (click for larger version)


The Blasters opened for Queen during the early days. That’s a very odd pairing.
They were very nice guys. I can’t say the same for their audience [laughs]. The three guys—Brian May, Roger Taylor, and I can’t think of the bass player’s name right off the top of my head—but they came into a club one night where we were playing. And we hadn’t made any real records yet on a national label, and they saw us and decided to put us on their tour. Yeah, there were some brutal nights when you had 17,000 people booing you. But I’ll say one thing for that kind of experience when you’re a young band. It’ll either break you up or make you stronger. In our case, it made us stronger. Our deal was always, “Hey we’re getting paid to be here, and you people paid to be here! Who’s cooler?” [Laughs] In those days, we were working for maybe 75 bucks and free beer. We were getting paid 500 bucks opening for Queen—five nights a week. We were eating steak every night.

Was there a good bit of camaraderie in the early L.A. punk days?
Yeah, there was. When nobody’s really rich and famous. L.A. had so many bands back then, and there wasn’t a cookie-cutter approach to music. It was all kinda lumped under punk rock, which a lot of it was. These days, punk rock means something else. We did shows with people like the early Go-Go’s, before they became the famous, wealthy Go-Go’s. Then we did shows with Asleep at the Wheel, Queen, Black Flag. I think a lot of times club owners or concert promoters these days—maybe it was true back then, too—tend to think the audience is not very smart [laughs].

Did your song “Border Radio” come from fond memories of listening to Mexican stations when you were growing up in California?
Those stations were definitely a huge influence on my life. There was just something wonderfully magical– and there still is–about finding a good station in the middle of the night when you’re driving in the darkness; this stuff coming at you in the dark. Especially as a kid, we traveled a lot throughout the West. And you’d have the transistor radio, and you’d get stations from 500 miles away, and you’d hear Howlin’ Wolf or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams.


Yeah, there were some brutal nights when you had 17,000 people booing you. But I’ll say one thing for that kind of experience when you’re a young band. It’ll either break you up or make you stronger. —Dave Alvin, on opening for Queen

You have defined time spent touring as “elastic time.”
Well, it’s a good thing, and it’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing when you’re actually playing, you know, you really do live in the present in the best sense of that phrase in that, for me, if I get to that—I’m going to sound very California here—to that place in my brain where you don’t feel anything. You get like a runner’s high or something. All the old songs are brand new, and all the new songs are old. Everybody that you’ve loved and who’s influenced you and taught you who has passed away, are up there alive for a little while. Your parents are alive, Big Joe Turner is alive, Lightnin’ Hopkins is alive, Hank Williams is getting out of the Cadillac to come over and see you. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of musicians that don’t need to tour still do it. I don’t think Bob Dylan needs to tour.

Rockabilly legend Ronnie Dawson [who passed away last year of cancer] was a label mate of yours on Yep Roc Records. Were you friends?
Yeah, I knew Ronnie. We were talking for a while about me producing a record for him. Ike Turner had a band in the early ’50s called the Kings of Rhythm. It was a horns, piano, and guitar kind of outfit. And Ronnie was a big fan of that sound, that Kings of Rhythm sound. So we talked about doing a record like that, an R&B blues record. But with schedules and this, that, and the other, it never came to pass. I remember the first time I saw him when he played this little club here in L.A. He completely blew my mind. I was just stunned, because you tend to think of guys who made records in the ’50s as being 10 years older than Bob Dylan and all that. So I’m watching him and sort of did the math and realized he was 15 when he did “Action-Packed.” And I realized he was maybe two years older than Bob Dylan and basically a contemporary. I was watching these clips of Eddie Cochran from this show out here called “Town Hall Party,” which was a local country and western TV show. And so I was watching Eddie, and the kid had everything. He could play, he could sing, he had charisma, he had the looks, he just had everything. I was sitting there thinking what a tragedy it was that he passed away so young. Then I did the math on that and realized the same thing with him, that he was only maybe one or two years older than Bob Dylan. So if he would have lived he could have become like a Bobby Darin kind of guy. Same thing with Bobby Fuller . . . So in Ronnie’s case, the tragedy is that he had another 10 or 20 years of great music.

I read that your dad’s death influenced one of the songs on Ashgrove.
There’s one song on there called “Man in the Bed” that’s definitely about him, but it’s about anybody who’s sick in the hospital.

Was he a fan of the band?

He only came to one gig, but he was a fan. Especially later in life. His main concern was, like all parents, can you pay the rent doing this? [Adopting a grumpy, authoritative voice] “Are you making any money, are you paying your bills?” Being a musician has always been an unstable career choice. You don’t know if you’re gonna make the next mortgage payment. But when I was a kid, the pressure was to get a job in a factory or go to school somehow and get a degree and become white-collar. The sad reality is that the blue-collar jobs are basically gone, and now the white collar jobs are leaving [laughs]. In a way, I made the right choice [laughs]! They’ll figure out a way to outsource singer/songwriters at some point [laughs], but they haven’t done it yet.

How did The Blasters reunion gigs go last year?
They were fun . . . to a point.

Did you and your brother get along?
To a point . . . pretty much. We don’t go camping [laughs]. But he’s my brother, yeah, I love him. All the guys are like brothers. We’re five guys who literally grew up together. So, to paraphrase the World War II TV show, it’s “a band of brothers,” and everybody screams at each other. The very last gig we did, the piano player tried to kill me [laughs]. We had a brotherly disagreement.

What did you disagree about?
Awww, the way a song ended. The thing about The Blasters is that you get away from them and you become yourself, then you go back to them and you become that other guy. But it was great. We’ll do it again at some point. The thing was, Rhino Records was putting out that anthology of all the stuff we had recorded. I have no interest in going and making a studio record. You know, writing 10 songs for my brother to sing. But it just seemed silly that we couldn’t play together and go out and do some gigs. And it just meant the world to a certain group of people, to see five schmoes from Downey on stage together.

Do you share your brother’s love of mathematics?
I respect it from a distance [laughs]. He went back to school after I left [The Blasters] and got his master’s degree and taught for a little while. But the thing is, when you’re teaching a math class or doing some sort of theorem or something, you can’t dance to it. Once you get that in your blood, it’s difficult to give up having that kind of effect on people. &

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Men perform at City Stages Sunday, June 20, on the Blockbuster Stage from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.

Tony Joe White

Tony Joe White


“Nobody knows if I’m white or black” has always been one of Tony Joe White’s favorite descriptions of himself. On the telephone, it really is impossible to distinguish his heritage, but there’s no mistaking the deep voice with the exotic Louisiana drawl on the other end of the line. It’s the growl heard on the spoken introduction to “Polk Salad Annie,” Tony Joe White’s signature tune and one of the classic examples of a lost genre known as Southern soul music. “I was raised on polk, and my momma used to get us to eat it all the time,” White says of the inspiration for his 1969 hit during a telephone conversation from his Nashville home. “We lived in a cotton field down there [in Louisiana]. It was growin’ wild, and she’d cook it like greens.” 

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Raised in the swamps of Goodwill, Louisiana, Tony Joe White had little interest in music until one day his brother brought home a Lightnin’ Hopkins record. “Yeah, when I was 15 or 16 my brother played that thing for me. Before that, music meant nothing.” White began playing in roadhouses several years later. “Well, at that time I was playin’ clubs in Texas and Louisiana, doin’ Elvis covers, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins covers . . . In the early days I used to comb my hair like Elvis [who recorded a dynamite version of 'Polk Salad Annie']. Before I started writin’, I had him down pretty good . . . I actually had a little microphone that fit around my neck, and I could play the guitar and do the legs [like Elvis] all at the same time. He was a heavy influence on them early days for me,” White remembers.

But it was the Bobbie Gentry hit “Ode to Billie Joe” that inspired White to give songwriting a shot. “I heard that song on the radio, and I thought, ‘Man, how real can it get. I am Billie Joe.’ So, I decided that if I ever was goin’ to sit down and try to write, I was goin’ to try to write somethin’ I knew about, and somethin’ that was real. And in a couple of weeks time I started on ‘Polk’ and ‘Rainy Night in Georgia.’ So both them tunes came about the same time.”

In 1970, singer Brook Benton recorded “Rainy Night in Georgia,” an intensely gorgeous tune whose inspiration holds less mystique than its timeless quality might suggest. “Later on after high school, I went to Marietta, Georgia, and drove a dump truck for the highway department, stayed with my sister some,” White explains. “Down there when it was rainin,’ I knew I didn’t have to go to work the next day, and I could sit and play my guitars.”


“Meetin’ Lightnin’ Hopkins was just like meetin’ Elvis or Tina Turner for me.”

White eventually met his boyhood idol Lightnin’ Hopkins thanks to an invitation to play on a session with the blues singer. “Yeah, that was after ‘Polk’ was out, and he was in L.A. at the same time I was. And the record company invited me down to play guitar and a little harmonica with him on the album called L.A. Mudslide. Meetin’ him was just like meetin’ Elvis or Tina Turner for me.” Meeting Tina Turner, however, was more than a simple thrill for Tony Joe White. The introduction resurrected his career, which had entered a lull in the late 1980s. In 1990, Turner recorded four of White’s tunes on her multi-platinum Foreign Affairs album. One, “Steamy Windows,” was a worldwide hit. He’ll never forget Turner’s reaction the day he walked into the studio. “She just died laughing when she met me. Her manager and me came into the studio, gettin’ ready to do that album with her and she looked up and just started rollin.’ Yeah, she said she always thought I was a black man,” he remembers, laughing.

Among White’s lasting memories of his many years on the road were the shows in the 1970s that he did with Sly Stone, who had a reputation for making audiences wait, if he bothered to show up at all. “Sly was always a problem. He was always late for the show, and the crowd was always nearly in an uproar,” White says with amusement. “And when a white boy started walkin’ out on stage in front of all them people, they was hollerin’ at me and everything. As soon as I’d talk or hit a lick on my guitar, they’d go, ‘Hey, alright!’ It was pretty spooky. In fact, a couple of times up north, I’ve had promoters offer to pay me my money not to go out on the stage. They said it’d be too rough on me. I’d say, ‘Well, I flew a long ways, man, to play some music. Sure hate to go back and not play nothing.’ Yeah, Sly always made sure he was an hour late. He was at the Isle of Wight Festival with me in 1970 [Jimi Hendrix was on the same bill]. Anyway, Sly wanted to come on at sunrise instead of his regular time [earlier in the evening]. There was 600,000 people there. Well, here comes Sly and the band up through the woods, all these tambourines shaking and making this beat and smoking and singing. And 600,000 people are in their sleeping bags asleep. And, man, he kicked into one song and a few woke up and kinda got up, and he played another and a few more got up. And he started into a third one, and all of a sudden he just walked off stage,” White said, laughing throughout the story.

Jimi Hendrix also left a lasting impression on White at the Isle of Wight. “I saw him on the airport runway there where they had a little four-seater carrying us back and forth over to the island. And he had managed to get out on the runway in a very high state of mind, and he was thumbing the plane when we landed—like he was trying to hitch a ride. He had on plaid pants, a leather jacket, and a big quilt. And he almost got hit by the damn plane. And then a few days later he died.”

The lack of interest in rhythm and blues among the current crop of black musicians is disappointing to White. “There’s more white people playin’ blues now than there are the other way,” he says with more than a hint of resignation. “I think rap knocked it all the way out. Most bluesy people, you know, all blacks and everything, they’d rather have an electric drum kit and sit there and yak about what happened in the street that day than learn how to play a B3 organ or learn how to do an Otis Redding moan or shout.” &

Tony Joe White performs at the Blockbuster stage on Sunday, June 20, from 4:20 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

Nashville Rebel: Waylon Jennings, 1937-2002.

Waylon Jennings was addicted, no question about it. Skipping meals and going for days without a bath, Jennings spent hours wallowing in self-absorbed, hedonistic pleasure as bells rang and colors flashed before his eyes. Life was getting out of hand. He’d drive all night after a show in Louisiana just so he could wrap his fingers around his favorite Nashville pinball machine. His habit eventually reached $35,000 a year — in quarters.

Jennings’ childhood in Texas epitomized the drama of country songs. He picked cotton from dusk to dawn, his mother openly wept every time she heard Roy Acuff sing “Wreck on the Highway,” and an alcoholic uncle regularly consumed grapefruit juice with brake fluid. Jennings was an outlaw long before his music was literally marketed as such. Refusing to conform to ideals defined by the Nashville music establishment, Jennings grew his hair long and boycotted the Grand Ole Opry for 10 years because the show did not allow performers to use a full set of drums. His disdain for the music industry took root in his teens when he played with his Texas pal Buddy Holly. Jennings gave up his seat on the doomed airplane that killed Holly, J. P. Richardson [the Big Bopper], and Richie Valens. Holly had teased Jennings about being afraid to fly to the next show 400 miles away, laughing that he hoped the bus Jennings and others were traveling on would freeze. Jennings replied, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Guilt and remorse about the remark haunted him for years.

The promoter found a local teen who had won a talent show to fill in for Buddy Holly the night of his death. Jennings was convinced to play the show with assurance that he would be flown home to Texas the next day for Holly’s funeral. The flight home never materialized, and the tour proceeded for another three months across the Midwest. At tour’s end, Jennings received only half of what he had agreed to play for; promoters had short-changed the musicians since the stars had been unable to appear.

Jennings revolutionized music, creating an irreverent blend of country and rock ‘n’ roll that introduced a generation of drug-addled hippies to a warped version of 1950s cowboy singers Roy Rogers and Tex Ritter. Music critics branded the sound “Outlaw.” A string of duets with Willie Nelson, including “Good-Hearted Woman,” “Luckenbach, Texas,” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” drew an audience that Nashville had failed to snare with its marketing of “folk-country.” In truth, Jennings had never set foot in Luckenbach, and absolutely detested the song because he thought it sounded too much like “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.”

“I left all my ex-wives. They didn’t leave me,” Jennings bragged in his autobiography. “I went through my marriages like Grant went through Richmond.” The singer boasted that all of Hank Williams, Sr.’s, ex-wives had hit on him, and claimed to have often had several women in one night, hiding them on different floors of the same hotel. Jennings even tried to pick up newscaster Jane Pauley when she interviewed him on NBC’s “Today Show.”

Getting high became a way of life for Waylon Jennings. The Telecaster Cowboy, as he often referred to himself, ate a couple dozen amphetamines a day for 15 years, citing Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, and himself as “world champion pill-takers.” Loretta Lynn used to walk Jennings around the dressing room when he got too high before a show. A friend finally convinced him to take up cocaine to kick the pills. Over the next decade, Jennings spent $1,500 a day feeding his cocaine habit. He ignored a White House meeting with President Jimmy Carter to do drugs with a Washington Redskins football hero, and he shared his cocaine with members of the Oakland Raiders at halftime while the Raiders were trailing the Chiefs 6-0 during the Kenny Stabler years. The Raiders scored 54 points in the second half to win. Jennings played poker and drank beer with Mother Maybelle Carter, introduced Nashville to the 12-string electric guitar, narrated The Dukes of Hazzard (“I aimed the narration at children and it made it work”), and once had a run-in with Grace Slick while filming a television special, calling her a communist for her criticism of America.

In 1984, he took his fourth wife, Jessi Colter, to Arizona, where the couple leased a house in the desert so that Jennings could end his years of cocaine addiction. Jennings, forever the outlaw, kicked the drug his own unique way. Stashing $20,000 worth of coke on his tour bus parked in the driveway of his temporary desert home in case the cocaine urge got too strong, Jennings quit cold turkey. One of his favorite anti-drug quotes was from former boss Chet Atkins at RCA, Jennings’ record company for over 20 years. “You’ve only got so many beats in your heart. Why shorten the number?” &