September 16 – Bolan’s ’70s Image Was No Dinosaur

Britain lost its’ favorite “20th Century Boy” 45 years ago today – Marc Bolan. The singer died at age 29 in a car crash in London this day in 1977.

The T-Rex frontman was a passenger in his girlfriend Gloria Jones’ car when it ran off the road and hit a tree. Jones was a singer herself, being the singer who first recorded “Tainted Love”, the huge ’80s Soft Cell hit. Bolan was born Mark Feld but took his stage-name in the 60s with “Bolan” being short form for BOb dyLAN, whom he idolized and emulated at one time. However, by the end of the decade he’d started the band T-Rex, which was  far removed from the blue-jeans-and-politics delivery of Dylan. Bolan would soon become one of the originators of the sound and glitzy style that became “glam rock.” David Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti remembers “What I saw…Marc Bolan was raw talent. I saw genius…I saw a potential rock star in Marc, right from the minute I met him.” Over here, the band was little known besides for the single “Bang a Gong, Get it On.” In the UK though, they were one of the dominant acts for years, with four #1 singles: that one plus “Metal Guru”, “Hot Love” and “Telegram Sam”, plus four more which hit #2… all between 1970-72! . They went on to be a significant influence on the likes of Morrissey and Johnny Marr of the Smiths, R.E.M., Bauhaus/Love & Rockets and even their elders, The Who. Morrissey was a particularly big fan. “”What kind of kids love T Rex?” he mused, “School-hating anarchists.” “20th Century Boy”, covered by the likes of the Replacements and Chalk Circle in the ’80s, had a second chart-life in Europe in 1991 when Brad Pitt appeared in a Levis ad using the song. Columnist Stephen Patience pointed out the irony in that as Bolan “himself was more of a satin-flares man” than blue jeans enthusiast !

After his death, T Rex tunes were covered by bands as varied as Def Leppard, Guns N Roses, Bauhaus and Adam Ant, plus of course Robert Palmer’s Power Station, which had a hit with “Bang A Gong, Get it On.” London placed a statue and commemorative plaque in his honor near where he had the fatal accident, on what would have been his 60th birthday.

August 27 – Fifth Beatle Had Navigated Their Path To Stardom

Just weeks after the classic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band hit the shelves, the “fifth Beatle” (according to Paul McCartney), or the man who “discovered” the Fab Four died this day in 1967. Brian Epstein, their long-time manager and confidante died of an overdose of sleeping pills at the young age of 32.

Whether it was a suicide or accident remains debated to this day, but what isn’t open for discussion is the impact it had on the band. John Lennon later said, “I knew that we were in trouble then… I thought ‘we’ve had it now.'” Pattie Boyd, George Harrison’s wife at the time said “Paul and George were in complete shock. Brian had found them, believed in them, molded them, turned them into millionaires.”

Epstein saw them first in the Cavern Club in Liverpool back in 1961, and recalled “I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humor.” After seeing them a few more times, he became their manager (against Paul’s dad’s wishes- he didn’t trust “Jews”), got them signed on to Parlophone , guided them in things like their bookings (“the gigs went up in stature,” says Paul) and suggesting they wear their now-famous suits on stage. The recent film Get Back seemed to show indirectly, the hole he left behind in the Beatles. Not only were they still talking of Epstein longingly and respectfully, a full two years later but the role of keeping the band focused and, well, “managed” seemed to have been taken on by McCartney which caused resentment from the others. Adding to that, he wanted his father in law to take over the manager’s role, something the other three were hesitant to accept. What’s more, soon John convinced them to sign up Allen Klein as a new manager, a man history looks on with far more critical eyes.

Epstein also managed Gerry & the Pacemakers but seemed unhappy in all his success, perhaps in no small part due to his being openly gay in a society where that was still against the law. His family house was opened as a Beatles-themed B&B in 2003.

August 16 – Long Live ‘The Queen’ (And ‘The King’)

A day when we remember not only “The King” but “The Queen”. The Queen of Soul that is. On this day in 2018, or 41 years to the day since the death of Elvis, Aretha Franklin passed away. She was at home, surrounded by family and friends including Stevie Wonder, in Detroit. Franklin was 76 and suffering from a variation of pancreatic cancer.

Franklin of course was successful; her 13 gold or platinum albums and 19 R&B chart #1s (starting with 1967’s “I’ve Never Loved A Man Before” and running through 1985’s “Freeway of Love” with greats like “Respect”, “Until You Come Back To Me” and “Spanish Harlem” in between) are testimony to that. She was also a well-known and respected voice for social justice throughout her life, but she was more than that. She was one of the great voices…the great voice, at least according to Rolling Stone.

That magazine ranked her as the greatest singer of all-time, just ahead of Ray Charles. They called her “a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one that can touch her.” Or as allmusic state, “more than any other performer, she epitomizes soul.” The “Queen of Soul” nickname was so widely known, Steely Dan referred to her by it in their ’81 hit “Hey Nineteen”; so great was her appeal that she visited the White House- several times. She performed at the inauguration galas for both Presidents Clinton and Obama, and invited to do so by President Trump, whom she turned down. In between Clinton and Obama was George W. Bush, who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She joined a list of musicians like Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to be so honored.

After her passing, she was quickly given tributes from all over, including one of this decade’s big female voices, Adele who wrote “I cannot remember a day in my life without Aretha Franklin’s voice and music filling my heart” , to Hillary Clinton who said “she deserves not only our RESPECT but also our lasting gratitude for opening our eyes, ears and hearts.”

July 3 – This Stone Rolled Too Wildly

It’s a red-letter day for black marks on the rock calendar. This day in 1969, Brian Jones , founder of the Rolling Stones, died at age 27, drowning in his pool. That came only weeks after the band had fired him after years of volatile, unpredictable behavior.

Jones was, no matter what else, a musical talent to be reckoned with. His dad was a piano teacher on the side and his mom led the church choir; they exposed Brian to lots of classical music as a child. He soon found a preference for old American blues music however, and his parents indulged him, buying him a saxophone and then a guitar as a young teen. He mastered both, and later keyboards and other instruments as well. He was by all accounts smart, but always in trouble at school. By age 16 he was playing in various jazz or blues clubs around London; in 1962 he put an ad in a music paper looking to form a band. That brought out, among others, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, as well as Charlie Watts. Jones assembled the band, and then picked the name, Rolling Stones, on a whim when an interviewer asked about it.

Jones preferred doing blues covers and very bluesy rock originals, which the rest of the band soon began to tire of, as did the manager Andrew Loog Oldham, with whom Jones never got along well with. Through the band’s early days, Jones irritated the others, getting paid 5 pounds (about $140 now) a week more than Jagger and Richards by the record company, supposedly for helping manage the group. He went through a string of girlfriends, that was prolific even by rock star standards, had several children and was often sued for paternity. One of his many flings left him for Keith in 1967, adding to the hostilities. And he got as bored with music as with any girl. On the one hand, he wanted the band to remain rooted in the blues; on the other hand he had grown bored with playing guitar by all accounts a few years in. Bill Wyman remembered “there were at least two sides to Brian’s personality. One Brian was introverted, shy, sensitive, deep-thinking. The other was a preening peacock…”

Although he was best known for his guitar work, often playing what they termed “weaving” guitars with Richards (in which both would rather alternate lead bits and rhythm parts), and also being a slide guitar talent, as we hear on “Little Red Rooster”, he experimented with all sorts of other instruments, particularly paying attention to the Beatles expanded sounds in ’66-67. He got a sitar (played on “Paint it Black” among other songs), and a mellotron (“She’s a Rainbow”), not to mention dulcimers and autoharps. He even joined Jimi Hendrix, playing percussion on “All Along the Watch Tower.”

He also experimented with drugs and booze, and stretching it to the limits. One wonders how bad one’s addiction had to be in the 1960s for Keith Richards to be fed up with it! By early 1969, the Stones were planning an American tour, and Jones drug arrests made it difficult to get him a work visa. Worse, he’d often not show up for recording sessions, and some present called him “literally incapable of playing music” anymore. He drove his motorbike through a store window, further debilitating him. On June 8, 1969, the band fired him although they gave him the grace of being able to publicly say he quit because “I no longer see eye to eye with the others over the discs we’re cutting.”

Not long after, his girlfriend found him floating in his pool. By the time medics arrived, he was dead. The coroner put it down as “death by misadventure” but noted both his heart and liver were in terrible shape from years of abuse. He was one of the first members of the grisly, so-called “27 Club”, musicians dying of unusual circumstances at age 27. Through the years various conspiracy theories have emerged suggesting he was killed in a fight over money, but the Sussex police investigated in 2010 and found no reason to re-open the case.

Although only Wyman and Watts attended his funeral from the Stones, they did play a show at Hyde Park just two days after his death, and released a number of white butterflies in his memory, as well as playing “I’m Yours and I’m Hers,” a Johnny Winter song he loved.

As an ironic final twist to the story, the Doors Jim Morrison wrote a poem in his honor, entitled “Ode to LA, while thinking of Brian Jones, deceased.” Two years later to the day, Morrison himself joined the “27 Club”, being found dead in his Paris bathtub.

June 8 – Sadly Texas Jim Joins His Brother England Dan

Today we remember the beret-topped half of Seals & Crofts, Jim Seals, whose death was announced by his family yesterday. Seals was 79 (according to birth info; many reports put him at 80 however). He’d been suffering from an undisclosed lengthy illness. However, turn the clock back 46 years and he was young and creative, with the duo’s last major hit, “Get Closer” hitting the American top 40 this week in 1976.

Get Closer” was the title track to their eighth studio album and offered more of what they were largely known for – melodic, well-played soft rock. They’d found their niche and audience; five of the previous seven albums of theirs had gone gold or platinum, and this would get them more gold. Their career had been boosted not only by a couple of top 10 hits earlier in the decade, “Summer Breeze” and “Diamond Girl,” but by an appearance at the eclectic California Jam concert in ’74. There they performed amidst an odd array of stars including the Eagles and Black Sabbath, to a crowd of 200 000 people and been covered by ABC-TV which filmed the show and ran a highlights version in primetime.

The song was written by the pair, but they had a lot of help in the studio with it. Seals played guitar on it, and Crofts wielded a mandolin, but they were joined by Carolyn Willis, former singer of Honey Cone who added the bright and prominent backing vocals and a bevy of star session players. Though the credits don’t break down who played on each track, the album boasted future Toto keyboardist David Paitch and drummer Jeff Porcaro as well as guitarists Ray Parker Jr. and Lee Ritenour on it. The love song, sounding a bit more weary in the singer’s declarations compared to “Summer Breeze” (rather than how happy he was to see her at the end of the day, it was a plea for fidelity and exclusivity with the recognition “people change and you’re changing”) caught people’s fancy in the Bicentennial summer, reaching #6 on the charts. That was curiously the same peak position their other pair of biggies had reached. It was also a top 20 in Canada. It would however prove the pair’s last significant hit single; they had a couple of minor hits after it and broke up in the early-’80s , regrouping periodically after that.

Both of the duo grew up in rural Texas and they met quite young. Seals was especially versatile, playing mandolin, violin and even saxophone in addition to guitar. They played in various bands in the ’60s including The Champs, but not on that group’s biggie “Tequila.”

John Ford Coley, who was in the duo England Dan & John Ford Coley with Jim’s younger brother Dan said of Jim, “I spent a large portion of my musical life with this man”, touring and working on each other’s records. “He was a dyed-in-the-wool musical genius. He belonged to a group that was one of a kind. I am very sad over this but I have some of the best memories of us all together.” Steve Miller tweeted “RIP Jim Seals. So long pal, thanks for all the beaufiful music.”

His brother Dan passed away back in 2009.

June 6 – Get Back To Remembering Billy

A sad anniversary more people will probably be marking this year than before – Billy Preston passed away this day in 2006. He was only 59…but had been prominent in the music world for over four decades by then.

Preston was of course one of the most talented keyboardists in rock and soul and an artist who had several hit records of his own. But more than anything he might be remembered as the “fifth Beatle”, coming in to help out on the Let it Be album and their famous final, rooftop concert. The importance he had to the Fab Four has become a lot clearer in the past year with the release of the Get Back movie. Even the title of the film is taken from the song he played so prominently on, the only Beatles record ever which gave another artist credit at their request (it was put out as “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”) George Harrison had invited him in to join the quarrelsome and less-than-efficient studio sessions and “he got on the electric piano and straight away there was a 100% improvement in the vibe in the room.” An improvement which was very obvious in the film; Preston’s sheer joy seemed to rub off on the others, as it apparently frequently did on other musicians he was around.

Billy was born in Houston and raised in a very religious household, which turned out to be a mixed blessing later in his life. He was a true child prodigy, teaching himself how to play piano and organ so well that by age 10, Mahalia Jackson had asked him to play with her onstage and a year later Nat King Cole brought him in to play in his band on a TV special. He’d toured with Little Richard and Sam Cooke by the time he was 16. It was with Little Richard, while touring Europe that he met the Beatles, then young lads themselves, in Germany. Apparently he made quite an impression on them. Once they rekindled their friendship in the Let it Be sessions, they signed him to their Apple Records label. There he recorded his first album to attract much attention, That’s the Way God Planned It, the title track of which was a reasonably-popular British hit. Among his guests on that album were Harrison, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton.

Soon he joined A&M Records, where he had his greatest success, putting out four singles which went gold in the States in a short time, including the #1 songs “Will it Go Round in Circles?” and “Nothing From Nothing”, plus the Grammy-winning “Outta Space”, which made the top 5.

He kept very busy in the ’70s working with others as well. He played at Harrison’s Bangladesh concerts and appeared on some of his records as well as ones by John Lennon and Ringo Starr. In addition he made friends with Keith Richards and worked extensively with the Stones, adding keyboards to five of their albums including Goat’s Head Soup and Sticky Fingers and touring with them regularly. Along the way he found time to write “You Are So Beautiful” for Joe Cocker (well, actually Billy said he wrote it for his mother, but of course Cocker made it famous) and be the first musical guest on a wild new late night show that was called Saturday Night Live in 1975.

At the end of the decade, he’d signed to Motown and released what would be his last real hit, “With You I’m Born Again”, a duet with Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta Wright. Unfortunately, health problems like high blood pressure and kidney disease, worsened by spiraling cocaine use limited his ability to play or do a lot of creating for many years after that (although he still did get in some session work including with Mick Jagger and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) He had to undergo a kidney transplant in 2002.

Those who knew him well knew that many of his problems and issues were because he was gay, although his religious beliefs made him not only fight his urges but refuse to acknowledge his orientation publicly.

A number of health issues including pericarditas (a heart problem) put him in the hospital in 2006 and he passed away from complications of that. Joe Cocker and the Temptations sang at his funeral and Little Richard spoke.

Ringo Starr said Billy was one of the greatest organists ever – “Billy never put his hands in the wrong place. Never.” Rick Wakeman said “every keyboard player I know loves Billy Preston…you can spot his playing a mile off,” because “he had such a spiritual touch to his playing.”

If there’s a rock’n’roll heaven, I think we know who’s playing the Hammond organ in the band, and keeping everyone else upbeat with his grin.

May 29 – Buckley’s Ill-fated Midnight Dip

A talented artist left us too soon. It takes something special to be listed among the 40 greatest singers ever by Rolling Stone if you only had one album out in your lifetime. Jeff Buckley was that special. Rather like Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley died young and fairly un-noticed but would go on to great renown posthumously.

The folk/rock singer drowned on this day in 1997 at age 30 after going for a swim in the Mississippi off Memphis, where he was staying and working on his second album. His family point out his autopsy showed him free of drugs and alcohol and noted he was in good spirits – he just made a bad decision to go swimming, fully clad, in a huge river at night. He grew up listening to Led Zeppelin, Kiss and Rush (oddly since his dad, Tim was a renowned folk singer) and eked out a living as a session guitarist around the beginning of the ’90s before signing on to Columbia. His first – and only real – album, 1994’s Grace, had won great critical praise (Jimmy Page called it his favorite album of the decade and David Bowie once said it would be the one album he’d take to a desert island) but rather poor sales. It is still ranked among Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest albums of all-time, with them describing him as the “voice of an over-sexed angel.” As Seth Jacobsen of the Daily Mirror put it, “in an era when the soundtrack to angst was defined by grungey guitars and plaid shirts, Jeff Buckley’s delicate melodies and aesthetic sensibilities set him in a world apart.” Likewise, allmusic rated it a perfect 5-stars calling it “audacious” but full of “sweeping choruses, bombastic arrangements, searching lyrics and above all, the richly textured voice.” However, when he was referenced on American Idol in 2008, when someone sang Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” (which Buckley had recorded in perhaps its finest form), sales took off. the single was downloaded over 175 000 times in one week, the album began to sell and he got the notice not afforded him in his lifetime. His family got ahold of some demos he had been working on which were released posthumously. Rolling Stone now call him the 39th greatest singer of all-time and Song Facts often report “Hallelujah” as their most searched song.

Sadly, he did follow in his dad’s footsteps in a couple of ways. Both saw their fame and recognition rise after their death and both passed away young. His dad died of an overdose at age 28.

May 18 – Red Letter Day For Rock Reaper

On a day when the late Taylor Hawkins and the Foo Fighters are once again front and center in the news due to stories about his condition before death, it seems sadly appropriate to look at a couple of stars who went before him. This is a rather grim day for rock, with two beloved frontmen committing suicide on this day, years apart. In 1980, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis hanged himself just as his band was starting to earn widespread recognition and days before they departed on what should have been a North American tour that could have opened up that market. At home in Britain, they’d already had a gold album and top 10 indie single and were readying to release their second album, Closer, which with its single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is considered one of the premier Goth rock releases. However, Curtis had long suffered from depression (which rang through clearly in his lyrics) and epilepsy which appeared to be getting progressively worse in the weeks leading upto his death. Many of the people around him at Factory Records and in the band’s inner circle said looking back, all the signs were there but they just didn’t see them until it was too late. The remaining trio of Joy Division soon added in Gillian Gilbert and formed the ultra-successful dance/new wave band New Order.

Fast forward 37 years to last year and Joy Division fan Chris Cornell followed suit, hanging himself in a Detroit hotel room only hours after leaving the Fox Theatre stage with his band Soundgarden. Cornell was 52 and left behind a wife and three kids.

Although Cornell had a history of depression and extreme drinking and drug abuse, it had seemed like he was on the right side of those problems, with Soundgarden back together and drawing great crowds and his life seemingly going fine.

Cornell was born and raised in Seattle and formed arguably the first grunge band, Soundgarden, back in 1984. Competent on piano, guitar and drums, Chris was the band’s original drummer but soon stepped out from behind the kit (not unlike another Seattle band drummer- Dave Grohl) to take center stage. Early on in their career Axl Rose called him the best rock singer in the world, a title Guitar World would also bestow upon him in later years. Soundgarden notched 6 mainstream rock #1 hits, peaking in 1994 with their Superunknown album that went 5X platinum at home and hit #1 there as well as in Australia. His stint in Audioslave in the early 2000s earned another 10 rock top 10 hits, including “Be Yourself” which hit #1 and like most of the Soundgarden hits (such as “Black Hole Sun” and “Blow Up The Outside World”) was written by him. Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament said of Cornell “Chris was the greatest songwriter ever to come out of Seattle. Jimi Hendrix could play the guitar like crazy, but Chris had the songwriting chops.”

Cornell’s widow had talked to him shortly before he was found dead and noted he was slurring his words and sounded odd. She blames his death on Ativan, a prescription drug for anxiety and insomnia that Cornell took. The drug is noted as increasing risk of suicidal behavior and was one of several legal drugs found in his system (worth noting that despite his history, there were no illicit drugs in him) but the coroner did not consider it a factor.

April 24 – A Sad Serving Of Ham

Canada’s April Wine once had a song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is A Vicious Game.” Indeed it seems that way at times and today we recall one of the worst examples of the bad side of rock taking over. Today we remember Pete Ham, who took his own life on this day in 1975. Only days short of his 28th birthday, he joined a growing list of Rock’s infamous “27 Club” – stars who died prematurely at that age.

The Welsh musician had been playing since 1961, primarily a guitarist although talented enough on keyboards and a pretty good singer to boot. His first band The Panthers became popular enough around Wales playing mainly cover songs; after a few personnel changes during the decade they became The Iveys and drew the attention of Ray Davies. He produced a demo for them, and around the same time, Peter Asher of the Beatles’ Apple Records also sat up and took notice. He personally spearheaded their career at Apple, talking to the Beatles about them and eventually getting them signed – the first act besides the Fab Four or their individual members to be on Apple.

Unfortunately for the band, they also drew the attention of Stan Polley, an American manager/agent who managed Lou Christie and Blood Sweat & Tears at the time. They got him to be their manager. Big mistake.

Their first album didn’t do much at all, and Apple decided that they needed a fresh approach. They got Paul McCartney to write them a tune, and to get them a new name. Thus was “born” Badfinger. the name a suggestion from Apple, either because of a stripper who was friends of the Beatles called Helga Fabdinger, or because John Lennon had an injured finger at one time and had to play the piano with one finger for “With a Little Help From My Friends” and he nicknamed that tune “Bad Finger Boogie.” Either way, the name took and so did McCartney’s song for them : “Come And Get It,” which he even played on.

With the backing of the Beatles and great melodies, one would expect Badfinger would have had it made. And they did alright for awhile, although never hitting the heights expected. They were more popular on our side of the Atlantic than their own, and they notched three top 10 singles in the U.S., four in Canada (the same three plus “Baby Blue”) and sold decent albeit not great numbers of their first four albums through 1972. Ham became their primary writer, and often lead singer, writing their hits “Day after Day” and “No Matter What,” as well as a tune of theirs which was initially overlooked until Nilsson heard it and took it to #1: “Without You.” He helped George Harrison on his epic All Things Must Pass album and appeared at his Concert for Bangladesh.

However, as good as the music, the business end of it was bad. Apple Records went under before long and worse, Polley wrote contracts that benefitted … Stan Polley. In an 11-month period of 1970-71, he paid Badfinger salaries (Ham got $5959, a few dollars less than his bandmates for some reason.) He himself took a commission of $76 000! As the ’70s passed, lawsuits were launched and eventually Polley took off, apparently with what was left of the band’s money.

It was all too much for Ham, whose wife was pregnant. He hanged himself at home, leaving a note saying “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better,” adding a postscript saying “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” He didn’t. Polley died at a robust 87 years of age in 2009.

Despite his sad circumstances, his music was great and his hometown of Swansea honored him with a commemorative plaque in 2013, calling Ham “Master of Melody.”

April 11 – Geils Drove His Namesake Band To The Winner’s Circle

Remembering a musician whose name is a household one, even if his music isn’t as much. John Geils Jr., or “J. Geils” died on this day in 2017 from natural causes at his home in Massachusetts. He was 71.

Geils is of course best known for the J. Geils Band, one of the States’ hardest-working rock bands of the ’70s who hit paydirt in the early-80s with the multi-million selling Freeze Frame and its #1 single, “Centerfold.” It pretty much put the icing on a sonic cake that included six gold or platinum albums and 10 top 40 singles at home between 1970 and ’84. By the time the band called it quits, it had become a radio-friendly pop rock outfit, quite different than its early roots as a bluesy rock’n’roll group more akin to early ZZ Top or Rolling Stones. We can hear the difference listening to their first hit single, “Lookin’ for a Love” In fact, when Geils started the group at college in 1967, it was called the J. Geils Blues Band. As the years went by, the group seemed to be more and more the work of the core duo of keyboardist Seth Justman and singer Peter Wolf, who wrote most of the original material. Geils however, was always an essential part of the band’s sound, being its only guitarist through the years, until he quit a re-formed version of them in 2012, suing the rest for what he felt was improper use of the band’s name.

After Peter Wolf’s initial departure from the band and its quick descent, commercially, Geils kept busy with other musical projects and cars. As a kid he was a fan of old jazz, blues and soul artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman and after the rock success of “Centerfold” he put out a number of jazz albums as “Jay Geils” with a jazz trio in the 1990s. He was also passionate about car racing, especially European versions and drove regularly in a number of races, fixing vintage sports cars in his own shop in his downtime.