Dead Folks 2006 (Part 6)
A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.
We could have a discussion about Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release envelopes, waveforms, voltage-controlled oscillators, and other stuff that fellows with PhDs in engineering physics like to talk about. After all, Robert Moog (rhymes with “vogue”), creator of the Moog Synthesizer, had several degrees in physics and electrical engineering, and he certainly knew his stuff. But let’s avoid getting bogged down in technical details and consider the larger story instead, which begins just after the Bolshevik Revolution.
In 1919, mad Russian physicist Lev Sergeivich Termen, aka Leon Theremin, created a musical instrument that generated between two antennas a radio signal, the frequency and amplitude of which a “player” could control by hand, sort of like playing a violin without touching it. An ever-deluded Vladimir Lenin sent Theremin on a global tour with this minor novelty, primarily to show off the amazing avant garde technology that the new worker’s paradise was ostensibly making available to greedy, behind-the-curve capitalists. One of those capitalist outfits was RCA, who purchased manufacturing licenses for the bizarre instrument in the late 1920s. Two decades later the Theremin’s spooky sound was de rigueur in radio and film scores for mysteries, crime dramas, and—most prominently—science fiction thrillers and horror movies (see: The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.)
Enter Robert Moog, a teenager light years ahead of his schoolmates and neighborhood chums, who in the early 1950s began making and selling Theremin kits as a hobby. For about 50 bucks, Moog’s astonishingly elegant sets allowed anyone with rudimentary skills in electronics to construct their very own instrument. Moog and his father sold about 1,000 kits in 1960. Building a Theremin, however, was a snap compared to playing the thing. Moog was already looking down the road for something even more elegant.
Enter Raymond Scott, a wigged-out composer, swing-band leader, electronics wizard, and studio engineer who may have been from another planet (some of those wild scores heard in Warner Bros. cartoons and “The Ren & Stimpy Show” are Scott originals). Moog and his father popped into Scott’s mammoth “lab” one afternoon and observed, among other wonders, a Moog theremin set that had been reconfigured by Scott into a type of keyboard instrument he called the Clavivox. “I have seen the future,” mused Moog, “and it is the keyboard interface.”
What followed was the creation of the Moog Synthesizer in various forms, but at a fraction of the cost of the big non-interface synthesizers made by universities and electronics companies during the early 1960s. Integrated circuits changed all that, and pretty soon Mellotrons, Arps, and Rolands were competing with Moog’s devastatingly efficient Series 900.
Nonetheless, it was with one of the 900 Series modular systems that the world got switched on to electronic music. In 1968, pianist Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos, thanks to gender reassignment therapy) released an album of Bach compositions played on the Moog. Switched-On Bach, one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time, went platinum. Pretty soon everybody was switching on. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and sundry other pop bands dabbled, but by 1970, artists such as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Stevie Wonder, and just about every member of Genesis were getting very serious. Then came the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange (another Walter/Wendy Carlos effort), and Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk, and so on to digital synthesizers and computer sequencers, which the Moog synthesizer definitely is not. To get that space age, bachelor-pad sound that Stereolab is known for, you must use an analog device. Just ask Brian Eno.
This makes Robert Moog essentially the father of electronic music as it is made, purchased, and listened to today, even if he was not a composer or player; “I just make tools for others,” he often stated. He’s wrong about that, but physicists do tend to be reductionists at heart. Moog was actually a major catalyst in a quantum shift in modern culture and science. The story in which he had a key role has a parallel narrative, such that the relationship of these cosmic counterparts matches in strangeness the interplay of subatomic particles. Just as Moog and Raymond Scott and other guys in lab coats and crew cuts tinkered with waves and oscillations, so earlier did Edward Teller, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, and colleagues manipulate previously unknown/unseen objects and energies to render forth nuclear energy.
The men in both narratives had an affinity for the new and improved, fully understanding the inevitable evolutions of the Kitchen of Tomorrow and the Car of the Future. They listened to swing, but it was the electric, atomic-age swing of the Les Paul guitar. They were squares, nerds, and horn-rimmed geeks that the girls secretly dug (recall Marilyn Monroe’s fascination with Albert Einstein). Their relationship with the enemy had its own curious waveform. Had it not been for the Soviets, Theremin might not have brought electronic music to our side of the globe. But then, without the Soviets, atomic weapon research would not have continued at its frantic pace. Without so many tests in the desert, there might not have been so many giant creatures emanating from Hollywood, but the electronic music team supplied the soundtracks just the same. There might not have been a space “race” either, in which case the space-age sounds of lounge music masters, minus the urgency, may have developed at a slower, less vulgar pace.
Either way, the research teams in both narratives were all about electrons; Raymond Scott’s most famous and instantly recognizable composition is “Powerhouse.” The business of energy entails positive and negative charges, and the two stories are charged with comparable symmetries. These mid-century brainiac physicists instigated a fascination with two things, one that we think we can’t live without and another that we can’t live with: Hi-Fis and Hydrogen Bombs. The space-age bachelor pad becomes the Home of Tomorrow, with a Philco or RCA Victor Hi-Fi in the den and a fallout shelter just south of the patio. The makers of The Bomb worked on the Manhattan Project, the key instruments of which were Uranium 238 and various synthetic elements; Robert Moog and Raymond Scott started their projects in basements in Manhattan, the end result of which was a synthetic instrument.
Polarities evolve from those symmetries. The atom bomb was a fission device; the H-bomb is a fusion device. The bachelor pad becomes a home only after the owner finds his counterpart. Robert Moog’s invention, a thoroughly modern device built for the future, reached the world only after it was used to make a best-selling record of classical compositions from the distant past. The performer on that album was a man who later became a woman.
The H-bomb geniuses and the electronics wizards invented things with properties and behaviors that modern physicists now say might not be correctly understood, if they exist at all. But until we learn for certain, let’s relish the fact that the very first nuclear events in the universe can be observed today in the form of radio signals. The term “radioactivity,” as the synthesizer band Kraftwerk pointed out decades ago, is a cosmic bit of double entendre. –David Pelfrey
Chuck Berry has for decades performed with no interest in whoever’s backing him on live dates. Berry simply shows up with his guitar and plays with whatever junkies have been corralled by the promoter into being his backup band for the evening. In his defense, though, Berry’s probably aware that he’ll never replicate his luck in hooking up with Johnnie Johnson. Johnson didn’t need Berry when the guitarist joined up with his Sir John Trio in 1953, but the pianist immediately saw that Berry’s tunes were future hits. Johnson’s arrangements became a vital part of developing what became Berry’s biggest songs. Johnson’s own part in rock history was revived when he joined the all-star Berry band assembled for Taylor Hackford’s concert film Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. Johnson would go on to perform well into the ’90s. He put on much better shows than Berry, of course. —J.R.T.
He was the manager of The Doors, but that was after Jim Morrison’s death. Still, Danny Sugerman built himself a nice career as the ultimate Doors fan. He began answering their mail when he was just 14 and would go on to chronicle the band’s exploits in plenty of books. His own autobiography, Wonderland Avenue, would turn out to be the most interesting. At least Sugerman lived long enough to see The Doors reunite—which, in the band’s current incarnation, has probably hastened the death of many Doors fans. He was survived by wife Fawn Hall, who enjoyed some ’80s notoriety for her role in shredding documents as Oliver North’s secretary during the days of the Iran-Contra scandal. –J.R. Taylor
February 2 marks a decade since a capacity crowd crammed into The Nick during a snowstorm to see the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and 69-year-old opening act R.L. Burnside. Spencer obviously dug how Burnside, a Mississippi hill-country blues man and erstwhile sharecropper, was the real deal. The next morning, the Blues Explosion headed to Holly Springs, Mississippi, to back Burnside for what became the A Ass Pocket of Whiskey album (reportedly recorded in a mere four hours). Though it received mixed reviews, the album became the best selling of Burnside’s career and paid for a new roof on his home. He had been recording since the late ’60s, and it must have had him scratching his head to see young, indie-rocker types suddenly turning up at his shows. He recorded a few more albums on the Fat Possum label, including the 1998 album Come On In. His 2001 album Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down was aptly named for a man who preferred to remain seated onstage. He died in Memphis. —Paul Brantley
Anyone interested in booking prominent folk music stars 40 years ago usually rang up Harold Leventhal. He was the man responsible for Bob Dylan’s first major concert appearance in 1963 at Town Hall in New York City. Leventhal handled folk stars such as Dylan, Joan Baez, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, as well as pop and rock acts such as Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, the Mamas and Papas, and Neil Young. He also produced the Arlo Guthrie film Alice’s Restaurant. —Ed Reynolds
A student of Amos Gordon at Jackson Olin High School, Callins went on to a career as an educator when not playing trumpet and keyboards with Stevie Wonder, The Lionel Hampton Orchestra, B.B. King, Max Roach, and many other jazz greats, most notably Sun Ra, for whom he also served a stint as music director. In 1978, Mr. Callins became the first jazz Artist in Residence for the Birmingham Public School System and helped found the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. (He was later inducted there, as well.) He led his own Sounds of Togetherness, with which he toured internationally, founded The Birmingham Youth Jazz Ensemble, and authored more than 500 compositions. Explaining jazz improvisation to schoolchildren, Callins once put it this way: “Everybody gets to play. It’s like being at church and having testimony time. We all get a chance to say our piece.” –Bart Grooms
As a member of The Buena Vista Social Club, Cuban-born Ferrer became an international star and was featured in Wim Wenders’ documentary of the same title. –B.G.
Drummer and lyricist for Traffic; he co-wrote most of their songs with Steve Winwood. –B.G.
He radically redefined jazz organ in the mid-’50s, making it a bona fide solo instrument and influencing every jazz and rock player who came after him. Eschewing the tremolo typical of the organ sound of his day, Smith used the newly introduced (1955) Hammond B-3 and played lines based on the ideas of his favorite sax players (Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas), not keyboard men. He made numerous recordings, especially for Blue Note. Miles Davis, on first hearing Smith: “Man, this cat is the eighth wonder of the world!” –B.G.
Fiddler extraordinaire who played with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Jim and Jesse McReynolds, then later sat in with the likes of Paul McCartney, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, Hank Williams, Jr., even Woody Herman; he can be heard on more than 2,000 albums. He combined the bluegrass of his background with jazz and seemed to fit in anywhere, even alongside Jerry Garcia and David Grisman in the hippie bluegrass quintet Old and in the Way. ––B.G.
One of jazz’s most sensual vocalists, Horn was both a protegée of and an influence on Miles Davis. Horn was also an accomplished pianist whose playing and singing meshed elegantly on her trademark ultra-slow ballads. Close Enough for Love (1989) is a fine first place to hear the woman who influenced Diana Krall and many others. –B.G.
You’d imagine that the members of Jefferson Airplane are doing well. Some of them are still along for the ride playing as members of Starship, while fringe figures such as Jorma Kaukonen remain respected guitar masters who run their own pleasant rural empires. Property values in San Francisco stayed on the rise, too. Yes, it’s good to be a former member of Jefferson Airplane—unless you were Spencer Dryden, the veteran Airplane drummer who was living in a miserable place that hardly counted as a shack.
Not privy to publishing rights or particularly adult decisions, Dryden was a classic hippie casualty whose induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame couldn’t even rate him a cup of coffee. To be fair, the band had originally lost interest in the guy after he began carrying around a gun in the aftermath of Altamont. Not too coincidentally, Dryden had joined the Airplane as a replacement for original drummer Skip Spence, who would go on to cultish fame as another legendary acid-rock nutcase. At least Dryden benefitted from a 2004 fundraiser that was meant to help him with hip-replacement surgeries and other medical problems. It was still a bizarre end to a weird life—which included an idyllic Hollywood childhood under the auspices of his uncle, Charlie Chaplin. Most telling quote regarding Dryden, courtesy of an ex-wife: “He was so quirky, and he never intentionally hurt anyone.” —J.R.T.
He stepped in to finish up “I’ll Be There” for the Jackson Five, and that pretty much guaranteed Willie Hutch any number of production jobs during the ’70s heyday of Motown. He was a natural purveyor of chart hits, too, having already made the adjustment from backwoods Texas soul to writing songs for The Fifth Dimension. However, Hutch would really make his pop-culture breakthrough with his film scores for The Mack and Foxy Brown—both of which were grandly intrusive experiments in funk and soul. (In the tradition of Curtis Mayfield’s work on Superfly, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” continues to matter far more than any scene from The Mack.) Hutch was always welcome in the studio during the ’80s and ’90s, as well, and was still releasing strong work right up until 2002. Hutch also stayed around long enough to hear his “I Choose You” backing up the action in this year’s critically acclaimed pimp epic Hustle & Flow. –J.R.T.
Wearing wraparound sunglasses and beaming a toothless grin as he danced in the audience to his own opening act (Southern Culture on the Skids), Hasil Adkins was clearly enjoying himself as he waited to go on stage. Minutes later Adkins was on stage alone with an acoustic guitar, singing in a captivating yet disturbing tenor that occasionally broke into a bad, but hypnotic, falsetto. He broke a string and smashed his guitar against the wall behind him without even bothering to turn around, then calmly asked to borrow someone else’s instrument. After the show, a roadie acquaintance told me that Adkins’ lunch routine was a pint of vodka and five cans of chicken noodle soup eaten straight from the can. He also consumed two gallons of coffee daily.
Adkins was the consummate hillbilly singer, the original madman who inspired The Cramps and other warped devotees of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to concoct a musical genre called “psychobilly.”
He claimed to have written more than 7,000 songs (with titles like “Boo Boo the Cat” and “Chocolate Milk Honeymoon”), and in 1970 he began mailing out thousands of tapes in an effort to secure a record deal. U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia gave one of Adkins’ tapes to President Nixon; the President responded to Adkins on White House stationery: “I am very pleased by your thoughtfulness in bringing these particular selections to my attention.” Adkins was found dead at his crudely constructed West Virginia shack at age 67 of as yet undetermined reasons. Foul play was ruled out. —E.R.
Knight wrote hits for Ricky Nelson (“Lonesome Town”) and Elvis Presley (“The Wonder of You”) as well for Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Perry Como, among others. Knight was born in Birmingham, spending much of his 72-year life here. In 1956, he had a strong regional following with his band Baker Knight and the Knightmares. Ricky Nelson recorded 22 of Knight’s songs. —E.R.
Singer/pianist whom The New Yorker called “one of the last examples (and indubitably the best) of the supper club singer or ‘troubadour;’” he worked at the Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from 1968 to 2005. –B.G.
Little Milton Campbell
Blues singer, guitarist and songwriter (“The Blues Is Alright,” “Your Wife Is Cheating on Us”). –B.G.
Folk/blues singer; he wrote “Jet Airliner,” which was a hit for the Steve Miller Band, and was the central figure in the remarkable documentary Genghis Blues. –B.G.
Chet Helms produced the first psychedelic light shows at the Fillmore West in San Francisco and staged free concerts in Golden Gate Park (when not fighting with promoter Bill Graham over whether to charge admission). “Chet was a hippie,” Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart said. “We were all hippies. He hated to charge for the music.” The story goes that he traveled to Austin, Texas, where he convinced Janis Joplin to hitchhike back to the West Coast with him. Helms was managing Big Brother and the Holding Company at the time and brought Joplin in to propel the band to stardom. Helms died at 63 of Hepatitis C complications. —E.R.
A 1950s member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Martin was an ornery man with a high, lonesome whine and a distinctive, fast-strumming rhythm guitar style. He’s probably best known for giving Mother Maybelle a run for her money as the show-stopper on the immortal 1970 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a record that forced rednecks to forgive hippies for long hair and compelled hippies to forgive rednecks for not liking loud music. The two polar-opposite cultures admitted that they were really quite fond of each other, despite what Merle Haggard sang.
The Grand Ole Opry was too terrified of his reputation as an unpredictable drunk to invite Martin to join. He never got over the rejection; he often drove to the backstage of the Opry in a limo he owned (the license plate read KING JIM) on Saturday nights to drunkenly demand that he be allowed to perform. Martin died of bladder cancer and congestive heart failure at age 77. —E.R.