January 31 – Manzanera ‘The Man’ For Stylish Guitars

Happy 72nd birthday to one of Britain’s most accomplished and adventurous guitarists – Phil Manzanera. Phil was born to an English dad, but Colombian mother, who played a little guitar. As a kid, he spent time living in South America and Cuba, which goes a ways towards showing why so much of his guitar work seems Latin-tinged. And perhaps why he’s Phil “Manzanera” even. He was born Philip Targett-Adams, but when young idolized Mexican guitarist Armando Manzanero, whom seemingly inspired not only some of his picking but the picking of his professional name.

He’d moved back to the UK by the time he was ready for college, and along the way made friends with another guitar great in the making – David Gilmour. While Phil was in several bands during his college years, the big break was joining Roxy Music just as they were ready to begin recording their first record. Curiously, he was their second choice after Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno auditioned several guitarists, but their first pick quit a week or two after the band formed. Manzanera answered the call, and never looked back, being one of the three constants in the oft-changing Roxy lineup, along with singer Ferry and sax-man Andy MacKay.

Manzanera’s often-flamenco tinged guitars were a big part of the Roxy sound, and from time to time he wrote with Ferry, co-writing songs including “Out of the Blue,” “Trash” and “Take A Chance With Me.” The latter was on their last, but biggest-selling, studio album, Avalon, which they recorded in Phil’s own studio. Among the other clients there were noted Roxy Music fans Duran Duran. He recalls running into them while both bands were playing in Germany around 1983 and “they ended up coming to my studio to record a single…”Is There Something I Should Know?” And then they went on to be more famous. A bit of fairy dust was sprinkled over them from the Roxy studio,” he jokes, noting they’re “very sweet guys.”

Never one to let grass grow under his feet, he’d already begun a solo recording career in downtime with Roxy in the ’70s, and to date has put out nine studio albums of his own, plus some more with his on-again, off-again project 801, which at times has included MacKay and Eno. Phil worked on a pair of Eno’s solo efforts too; the two seemed close and Eno ran much of Manzanera’s guitar recordings through his own synthesizers to manipulate the sound for the first two Roxy records.

And then there’s his old buddy David Gilmour. Phil co-wrote the hit “One Slip” with Gilmour for the first post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd album, and since toured with him and produced a pair of Gilmour albums, On An Island and Rattle This Lock.

Of late, Phil’s been busy with writing and producing a 14 hour radio series on “The A-Z of Great Guitarists” and in 2020 had a new release out with old bandmate Andy MacKay. Roxymphony was a live record where the Roxy Music guys got together a 20-piece orchestra and a full choir and performed Roxy songs like “Love is the Drug” and “Sentimental fool” in a big orchestral manner. “It was a revelation to us how well-suited the songs were to being orchestrated” he says. They were able to discover that more last year when Roxy Music toured again. He says that came about when Bryan Ferry, who lives near him, dropped by for a tea and said “do you fancy doing some gigs?” Realizing their ages and that it would mark the 50th anniversary of their first record, he responded “well, if there’s ever a time to do it, it’d be now. So yeah!”

Coming from a background that includes chameleonic Roxy Music, with ties to Pink Floyd, Eno and a host of Latin American artists, I think none of us should be surprised at how limitless his six-string sounds can be.

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January 29 – Many Were Oblivious To Frame’s Talents

Happy 59th birthday to Aztec Camera! Well, actually to Roddy Frame, who for all essential purposes was Aztec Camera and is now sometimes described as “the elder statesman of melodic wistful Scotpop.” The Scot singer/songwriter/guitarist put out six albums with an ever-changing list of backing musicians under the name Aztec Camera and has since put out several well-reviewed but poor-selling albums under his own name, although none since 2014.

Frame taught himself guitar, recalling “I started learning guitar when I was about four…I was just completely crazy about it.” His list of musical influences is long and varied, starting with the Beatles, Stones and Bowie when he was young to Echo & the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes when he was starting to create his own music to Springsteen and Dylan when he moved briefly to the U.S. in the ’80s. His records have traversed quite a range of styles but are always strong on melody. He says he’s most comfortable writing “personal one to one songs” but admires Billy Bragg’s politicism. Allmusic consider their debut album, High Land, Hard Rain a perfect 5-star “must-have” album, something echoed by Creem magazine which said of it “the world ain’t perfect but High Land, Hard Rain comes close.” They started their career off with a bang in Britain, with their first five singles all being Indie top 10 hits, including “Walk Out To Winter” and the great “Oblivious”, which was a #1 on that chart and made it into the overall top 20 there. That success got them signed with Warner Bros. and the 1987 album Love, which went platinum in the UK, largely on the strength of the hit “Somewhere in My Heart.” However, despite the critical adoration and heavy airplay on Toronto’s CFNY (their #17 record of the year) and LA’s KROQ, the band never really took off in North America and have only one top 10 hit or platinum record in the UK to show for their talent.

Frame currently lives with his wife in London.  Although he hasn’t said he’s retired from music, his website hasn’t been updated for five years, leading one to be a bit “oblivious” to expect new material anytime soon from Frame and his Aztec Camera

January 26 – Philly’s Other Famous Bell

Remembering one of the “Mighty Three” who gave us “TSOP”. Philadelphia is of course famous for the Liberty Bell. But, there’s one other Bell that was important to the city as well – Thom Bell was born 80 years ago today. Give or take!

Bell became synonymous with the Philadelphia soul sound, but was born in Jamaica. Probably late at night, because sources conflict over whether he actually made his appearance on January 26 or 27… even the Wikipedia page cites both days in different paragraphs! Either way, what’s important was that he moved with his parents to Pennsylvania at age four, and he was classically trained in piano. By his late teens, he began singing around Philly with Leon Huff, Kenny Gamble and Daryl Hall. Hall of course eventually became part of the very successful duo Hall & Oates. Huff and Gamble were of more enduring importance to Bell though, being dubbed “the Mighty Three” years down the road.

Thom began doing session work in the ’60s for Cameo Records, and soon made a name for himself, writing, producing and even arranging orchestral pieces for pop/R&B songs. His first real breakthrough as such was with the Delfonics, co-writing and producing their 1970 top 10 hit, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind.” When Gamble & Huff started their own company, Philadelphia Intl., he went to work for them, although through luck or great business savviness, he wasn’t limited to working with just that label. In fact, if it was Philadelphia, if it was soul or R&B and it was the 1970s, Thom probably had a part of it. He worked with Billy Paul, the O’Jays, even Dusty Springfield one time. He was responsible for much of the sound of Philadelphia, so it was appropriate he also worked with MFSB, the session players who had the hit “TSOP” – “the sound of Philadelphia.” But he was most successful with the two “S” groups of the city – the Stylistics and the Spinners. He wrote and produced a number of the most popular songs by both, including “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “You Make Me Feel Brand New” for the former and “Rubberband Man” with the Spinners, with whom he won a Grammy in 1974 for Best Producer.

He did an EP with Elton John in 1979, which yielded the hit “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” – one might remember that Elton’s big 1975 hit “Philadelphia Freedom” was written to sound like the works of the Mighty Three – but after that, Thom’s career slowed down considerably in the ’80s.

Although his name didn’t appear on many hits after that, his extensive body of work in the late-’60s and ’70s earned him a spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005.

Sadly, he passed away just shy of his 80th birthday, last month after a “lengthy illness.” Kenny Gamble said of him “Leon Huff and I were proud to have him as part of the Mighty Three writing team, which helped create our signature brand of “TSOP.” He was a great talent and a dear friend.” Betcha that was right, by golly wow.

January 25 – Green Kept Busy After Split From Enz

Happy 70th birthday to one of the drumming world’s anonymous greats – Malcolm Green. Green is mostly remembered for his time with Split Enz, but has done quite a bit more although, unfortunately for him, seems like he’s always been “one step ahead” (to borrow from one of the bigger hits he worked on) or perhaps behind in hitting it big.

Green’s British, but his most successful period was spent Down Under, in Australia. He began drumming professionally at age 16, and was in several British bands that did OK, but seemingly just after they’d peaked. Notably, The Honeycombs and The Love Affair, who had a #1 song there with “Everlasting Love” (later an American hit for Carl Carlton). It’s unclear when he was with them, but his name isn’t on the credits for that single.

Split Enz seemed to go through drummers something short of Spinal Tap’s rate but more frequently than most groups, and when they went looking again in 1976, the Finn brothers knew of Green and invited him. He moved to Australia and took the job and was the guy behind the kit for their growth years, in which they went from small-time Aussie successes to international stars. Particularly the 1980 True Colours album, with the single “I Got You.” The album was their first top 50 hit in the States and the UK, their first top 10 in Canada and their first chart-topper at home, both in Australia and New Zealand. He was given co-writing credits on one song on it, the instrumental “The Choral Sea”, but wanted more input. But Tim Finn had a problem with that, so after one more album (’81’s Waiata), he was fired unceremoniously.

After a seemingly half-hearted attempt to go solo, he bought a new house in a beautiful neighborhood of Sydney and built a studio in it – Green Sounds Music. It’s unusual in that it’s said to be entirely “wired to optimize utilizing different acoustic spaces”. Basically, you could play and record in any room! He then concentrated on producing artists in his home, though he did rejoin Split Enz briefly, for their 2005 induction into the Australian Music Hall of Fame and a few concerts the next year.

Green keeps a low profile these days. He seemingly is a spokesman for Roland drums, but he sold his studio to return to Britain in 2014.

So cheers to Malcolm. Not a Ringo Starr or Dave Grohl, but one of the many minor names that collectively are what keeps much of our music alive and kicking.

January 22 – The Voice That Started San Fran Band On Journey To Superstardom

Cake? Chocolate? Red velvet perhaps?  “Anyway you want it”, Steve Perry– it is your birthday after all! The former Journey singer turns 74 today.

His dad (who was Portuguese and was born “Pereira”) was musical, loved to sing and owned a radio station in California and Steve learned to play guitar quite young and played in his school band but it’s always been Perry’s voice that has set him apart. Rolling Stone rank him as one of the 100 greatest singers of all time and Brian May of Queen says of him “he’s a voice in a million.” Randy Jackson (American Idol judge who also happened to play bass on Perry’s first solo record and then ironically joined Journey, without Perry) says “other than Robert Plant there’s no other singer in rock that even can come close to Steve.” The powerful tenor voice certainly helped Journey as much as the band helped Steve. After three relatively poorly-received albums, heavy on instrumentals and with another singer, Journey’s manager Herbie Herbert called on Perry who was then in a struggling Bay Area band called Alien Project. The result was staggering – Infinity (which we talked about earlier this week here) put the band on the charts with Perry’s singing and radio-friendly writing and from there he went on to be the voice of all of the band’s hit albums, including 1981’s Escape, which sold in the area of 10 million copies. His first solo record, Street Talk, from 1984, was quite successful too, going double platinum in the U.S. on the strength of “Oh Sherrie”, a single he wrote for his then girlfriend Sherrie Swafford, whom he featured in the video. Perry left Journey for good in 1996 after a hip injury resulted in him being unable to tour and caused conflicts in the group.

Perhaps he’s better off that way. Currently various members of Journey are suing one another over use of the name. Perry, meanwhile, has been busy getting back to music lately. Apparently that came out of dying wishes of his girlfriend Kellie who passed away from cancer in 2012. He put out his third solo album, Traces, in 2018. The album hit the U.S. top 10 and garnered decent reviews; since then he’s put out a Christmas album and Traces (alternate versions and sketches), essentially an “unplugged” version of the previous one. “I just wanted to strip it down and show everybody the raw emotion that exists in those songs,” he says. As for Journey, don’t look for a reunion any time soon. He did attend the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction with his former band in 2017, but in a show of unusual respect (for the entertainment world), let their new singer, Arnel Pineda sing for the show’s concert, while he watched from the sidelines. Still, we likely haven’t heard the last of Steve. He’s agreed to work with Dolly Parton on her upcoming rock record and not long ago said that he has several more tunes in the works. “I think I’m too old to stop now,” he told journalists. Let’s hope so.

January 19 – Parton A Part Of Many A Hall Of Fame

If anyone deserves a Happy birthday, I guess it’d be someone who’s inducted into the “Happiness Hall of Fame” (yes, that’s a real thing!). so happy 77th birthday, Dolly Parton!

No matter what your musical tastes, it’s hard not to like Dolly, the Queen of Country Music. Growing up poor in the hills of Tennessee made her appreciate life’s simple pleasures, but also to have a very strong work ethic she credits her dad with instilling in her. She told Dan Rather she still likes to get up before sunrise to work, and that pays off – she’s written some 3000 songs and recorded over 50 studio albums of her own, eight of which made it to the top of the American Country charts. Not surprisingly, she’s a long-time member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. As well, she’s had mainstream success with songs like “Here You Come Again” and “9 to 5” (taken from a movie she starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda) but perhaps did best with the song “I Will Always Love You”, made into a major hit by Whitney Houston. Elvis Presley had wanted to record it, but apparently wanted to have songwriting credit for it which she refused. Besides her music and movies and Dollywood theme park (the #1 visited single tourist attraction in her home state), she’s usually doing something for others – she’s spearheaded campaigns for HIV/AIDS charities, an effort to preserve the Bald Eagle and headlined a 2016 fundraiser for fire victims in Gatlinburg, near where she grew up.

She’s been back in the entertainment news recently. Last year she ventured into fiction-writing, co-writing a story of an up-and-coming country singer with James Patterson, Run Rose Run. It was a #1 best-seller on the New York Times list for five weeks. And, more recently again with her being named to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last fall. That, despite her asking not to be voted in, given that she’s more of a country musician. However, since she was inducted, she decided to try and earn it. “Why not just go ahead and do it…maybe have some of the greats, the legends of rock & roll sing along with me.” Thus, she’s working on a rock album, which will be largely (if not all) cover versions. Steve Perry, Steven Tyler, Pink and even Paul McCartney are already confirmed guests for it. Perhaps we will have a preview of how it will sound tomorrow. A new song, “Gonna Be You”, which she did with Cyndi Lauper, Debbie Harry and others, is due to be released.

And no, she doesn’t care if you stare at her: “it takes a lot of money to look this cheap!” is one of her famous catch-phrases!

January 18 – Crispian Threw Different Musical Genres In The Shaker

Take a little post-punk rock, a little Deep Purple, a little of George Harrison’s mysticism, stir in a dash of Blur and throw in some Silver Screen trappings and you could have… a mess. Or, if you’re lucky, you might have Crispian Mills, the prime shaker of Kula Shaker. Mills is 50 today and we say Happy Birthday to the guy who’s a fairly big deal in his Britain…but almost anonymous anywhere else.

Crispian was born and raised in London, the son of actress Hayley Mills. As such, he traveled a lot as a kid and grew up with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Richard Attenborough visiting the house. No surprise his first real goal as a kid was to be a film-maker. But as he he his tween years, he’d gotten more interested in music. He recalls the first record he bought was “Stand and Deliver” by Adam and the Ants, and that shaped his tastes for awhile. Until he came across an old Deep Purple record. “I’d grown up listening to Boy George and Duran Duran on the radio,” he said, and then he heard Deep Purple and the Kinks. “’You Really Got Me.’ Chung! This is your destiny!”. He soon got a guitar and began to learn it.

All the while, he was becoming increasingly interested in Eastern/Indian spiritualism, eventually becoming a vegetarian and following the Hare Krishna movement. All of which influenced the band he started in the ’90s, Kula Shaker. Indeed, even their name is a play on words, being derived from a 9th Century Indian emperor many had revered as a god, King Kulashekara. The band mixed together contemporary Britpop, a dash of classic rock guitar and a splash of psychedelia with at times introspective or spiritual lyrics… occasionally even in Sanskrit, as on the hit “Tattva.” Mills assembled a quartet for the band, but was the dominant force, playing guitar, harmonica, tambourine and even ukulele at times as well as being the lead singer and writer. As to the lyrics, he says “you can sing about things like premature teenage sex or you can sing about everlasting universal truths,” which was his choice, although it didn’t stop them from doing a cover of Deep Purple’s “Hush”, which ended up being a top 10 hit in the UK.

A top 10 there was not unusual for Mills or Kula Shaker early on. Between 1996-98, they scored five straight, including “Hush” and “Hey Dude” which both charted to #2 there. No surprise then their first album, the one-letter titled K, was a #1 hit, going double-platinum and being the biggest-selling debut there since Oasis’. Elsewhere though, they remained a bit of a mystery. In the States, they hit the Billboard top 200…barely. K peaked at #200 for one week. That despite various enthusiastic reviews from publications like USA Today, which declared it “takes cues from the early Britpop and Eastern devotional music to create its thoroughly captivating mystical pop.” the band itself describe their sound as “super-charged, spirit-jangling, mind-expanding protest rock.”

Since then Kula Shaker have put out five somewhat less successful albums, the most recent being last year’s 1st Congregational Church of Eternal Love and Free Hugs, which charted only in Japan oddly enough. Mills himself has indeed ventured into some film-making. He currently lives in Bath with his wife, model Jo Branfoot and their three kids.

January 11 – ’80s Rock Grrl Now A Senior Bangle

We’ve made it through Manic Monday, let’s hope it’s a Wonderous Wednesday for Vicki Peterson…because it’s her birthday! Happy 65th to the lead guitarist from the Bangles.

Peterson was born and raised in L.A. Growing up in the ’60s, music was always her thing, with her first (musical) love being the Beatles, and then the Beach Boys and Byrds. Perhaps there’s little wonder her big band would be one starting with a “B.” When she was just nine, she got her parents to buy her an electric guitar, a department store copy of George Harrison’s Rickenbacker. “I was a kid who brought her guitar to every sleepover,” she says. As she hit her teens and got quite good, she admired the guitar playing of Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon as well as “the songcraft of Tin Pan Alley writers…also Lennon & McCartney and Elton John and Bernie Taupin.”

While she had some talent for the guitar, she didn’t like lessons so much. “I was lazy about practicing scales and found that writing my own songs was more fun.” And she had a chance to do that with various bands she was in during high school, and then the band she and her sister Debbie formed around the beginning of the ’80s after they met Susannah Hoffs through an ad in a local publication. They became popular in the local scene playing retro-’60s style psychedelic rock and in ’81 put out their first record, an indie EP called “The Real World.” At the time they were The Bangs, and had bassist Annette Zilinskas along, but soon they had become The Bangles and changed bassists to Michael Steele, who was with them through their heyday. Peterson had a prominent role in the group, co-writing a number of their songs including “Hero Takes A Fall” and even singing lead on a few tunes like “Bell Jar” and “In A Different Light”.

While she was second fiddle to Hoffs in terms of star appeal and scoring the lead on hit singles, we found she had a pretty good voice of her own, and she worked doing backing vocal work on records for artists from the Hoodoo Gurus to Tom Petty, whom she remained friends with until his untimely death . As for the Bangles success, she found it a bit surprising. “What I remember is feeling a bit out of sync with the music of the ’80s,” although she does say “I loved XTC, R.E.M. – all the acronym band names – Squeeze, Tears for Fears.”

After the band broke up in ’89, she soon joined a band called Continental Drifters with Susan Cowsill, through whom she met her husband John, of the Cowsills. And yes, worlds did collide… Vicki briefly joined the other big girl group of the ’80s, the Go Gos, replacing Charlotte Coffey while she was pregnant for a 1994-95 tour.

These days, Peterson is back in the Bangles for their infrequent tours and says she’s working on non-musical writing projects but is always thinking music. “My husband …has been trying for years to get me to sit down in the living room and sing songs with him, and I think he’s onto something there.”

Could be a pretty good rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the Peterson-Cowsill home tonight!

January 8 – This Queen Is Still Reigning

This day in 1937, two years to the day after “The King” – Elvis Presley – was born, the “Queen” of British music was born in Wales- Shirley Bassey.

Although over here, she’s largely only known for her top 10 single “Goldfinger” (one of three James Bond themes she’s done, “Diamonds are Forever” and “Moonraker” being the others), in the UK she’s been a regular part of the scence since the mid-’50s and is listed by Guinness Book of World Records as the “most successful British female singer of all time”, having 13 top 10 singles there, selling a whole lot of albums and performing for the Queen and Prince Phillip. Years later, the Queen Elizabeth would name Bassey to the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to the performing arts. Like Presley, she was something of a regular in the Las Vegas club scene in the late-’50s and like him, she was scorned for her suggestive behavior and lyrics. In fact, between her suggestive lyrics, her appearances on the Silver Screen and larger-than-life persona, she could perhaps be seen as the role model for Madonna and other multi-media women stars who followed. Her first single, “Burn my Candle” in 1956, was banned by the BBC for it’s sexy lyrics such as “open the door and spurn the scandal/who wants to help burn my candle/ at both ends.”

Bassey is still alive and occasionally performing, and willing to work with artists generations younger than herself. She did vocals on a Kanye West song in 2005 (we won’t hold that against her though!) and before that had a European top 20 hit with the band Propellerheads, “History Repeating.” Happy 86th to her!

January 5 – Stein Was The Mr. Blondie In Debbie’s Background

One of New York’s most enduring and versatile artists was born 73 years ago today. Happy birthday, Chris Stein!

Stein is a New Yorker through and through, born, raised and living his life there. In the early-’70s, he and his then girlfriend Debbie Harry were in one of the early punk acts in the Big Apple, the Stilletoes, and from there went on to form one of new wave’s first real break-through bands – Blondie. Stein added the guitars and much of the songwriting while Harry added the voice and, of course, the sex appeal. They were regulars at CBGB with the likes of The Ramones and Talking Heads, with whom Esquire recently compared them. They noted Blondie “nailed the midpoint between the glorious trashiness of the Ramones and the arch cleverness of the Talking Heads.”

Blondie’s first success was in Australia where the single “In the Flesh” hit #2 in 1977. A couple of years later, they were big everywhere, with Parallel Lines selling around 20 million copies and “Heart of Glass” (inspired by the sounds of Saturday Night Fever and Kraftwerk, remarkably enough for a band which was branded as “punk”) was a worldwide #1 hit. Blondie’s fortunes dropped not long after, the band split by 1983 but even though Stein and Harry were no longer a couple, they reunited in 1997. The single “Maria” from the late-’90s version hit #1 in the UK, making them the only American act to have #1 hits in Britain in three different decades.

Like many other musicians, Stein loves photography and has been avid in documeting the stars he’s known, including The Ramones, Andy Warhol and of course Debbie Harry. While they’ve not done much of late, Blondie are still together, with Stein, Harry and drummer Clem Burke still present from their heyday.