July 19 – A Brand New Music Genre? That’s All Right

Yesterday we looked at the final show at Shea Stadium and mentioned the first one there was by the Beatles… that had been what some figured was really the beginning of the “big concert” rock era. Today we look at a record Rolling Stone would suggest ushered in rock & roll in general. It was 68 years ago today Elvis Presley hit the store shelves, and rock music hit the airwaves with the release of his first single, “That’s All Right.” The 1954 vinyl single didn’t exactly set the music world on fire… but it sparked the match that did.

Remarkably, in an example of how different things in music back then, the song had been recorded only two weeks earlier! Elvis, his lead guitarist friend Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black were trying to record a few songs at the Sun Studios in Memphis, with owner Sam Phillips producing. In between “real” songs, Elvis began fooling around and broke into this song, a Blues number from eight years earlier. However, Elvis was playing it on his acoustic guitar and singing almost twice as fast as the original and the others joined in. Phillips liked what he heard, and told them to do it again from the top. This time he had tape rolling. They played it through in 1:57 and Phillips recorded it and after a little fine-tuning, pressed it as a single. Live to the disc, so to speak.

One has to recall, at the time, Elvis was unknown, except for in clubs around Memphis. So this, the first of what ended up being 117 singles he’d put out (according to Wikipedia; getting an exact count is difficult due to re-issues and different ones released in limited markets) didn’t generate a whole lot of buzz. It did become a local hit in the Southwestern Tennessee area, and got some airplay around the land on country radio… once again, remember in the early-’50s, since “rock” wasn’t a thing yet, neither was “rock radio” or even “top 40” stations. It’s estimated to have sold 20 000 singles, but failed to hit the Billboard charts. It did make some country music charts, getting to #28.

Elvis’ profile kept rising, but at first it did so as slowly as the Mississippi off Memphis after a drizzle. He, and Sun Records, would put out three more essentially unsuccessful singles before catching a bit of a break in 1955 with “I Forgot to Remember To Forget,” which went to #1 on country charts around the country, and up to #2 overall in Canada. That of course set the stage for the levee to break so to speak, with him quickly running off four-straight #1 selling singles now considered classics before they rang in 1956 – “Heartbreak Hotel”, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Hound Dog.”

Although Mental Floss agreed with Rolling Stone, saying it “stands as a convincing front runner for rock & roll’s ‘ground zero’”, a few suggest Arthur Crudup’s ’46 original was because it had seemingly the first electric guitar solo ever. Which seems a slim criteria for determining “rock and roll.” What isn’t in debate was that Crudup wrote the song. Or is it in debate?

The Sun single lists Crudup as the writer, but apparently they never paid him any royalties, there was a lawsuit in the ’70s, and he was due about $60 000, but he, or his estate allege they never received it. But that led to another argument. Some suggest that Crudup more or less plagiarized an earlier work, a 1920’s blues number called “Black Snake Moan” and its artist, Blind Lemon should be given co-credit.

No matter who actually came up with the idea, Elvis put it on the map, and soon Memphis would put Elvis on the globe – the map worldwide!

To mark the 50th anniversary of the song, a CD single of it was put out in 2004. Although it didn’t sell huge numbers at home, it did hit #3 in the UK, where it had been ignored 50 years prior.

November 28 – Funny Men’s Music Was No Joke

Now and then a comedy bit would become a hit single in the 1970s – Steve Martin told us about “King Tut,” Ray Stevens capitalized on the running nude fad with “The Streak.” But much rarer, then and now, was a hit that was credible music that began as a joke. But the one notable exception appeared on record store shelves this day in 1978. Live from New York (except it was L.A.) it’s The Blues Brothers! Their first album, Briefcase Full Of Blues came out 43 years ago.

The Blues Brothers were in fact, Saturday Night Live comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. They played brothers Joliet and Elwood Blues for the first time in a skit on the show in 1976. The shady characters in shades played old blues music and became popular on the late night show. Aykroyd said “the duo thing and the dancing came from John Lee Hooker. The suits…if you were a jazz player in the ’40s,’50s,’60s, to look straight you had to wear a suit.” Although designed as an ongoing comic gag, SNL had a pretty good house band, and both men really loved old blues music. Aykroyd, a Canadian, had even played in the Downchild Blues Band, probably the country’s top blues act in the ’70s, at times. So it wasn’t so surprising they’d eventually put out a record.

Neither perhaps was it a surprise it would be a live one, since they performed that way on TV…or that they were opening for another Saturday Night Live star. The performance recorded was them as the opening act for Steve Martin’s comedy routine, one night that fall in Los Angeles. They brought along a talented band to back “Elwood”s harmonica and “Joliet”s singing, including Paul Shaffer on piano, Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn on guitar and bass respectively (both were members of Booker T & the MGs and regular session players for Stax Records), four horn players and drummer Steve Jordan from the SNL house band. If you recognize his name, it might because he’s been in the news this year, being the new drummer for the Rolling Stones on tour.

The 11-song set opens and closes with Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and rolls through a variety of blues and R&B oldies including Junior Wells’ “Messin’ With the Kid”, “Groove Me” by King Floyd, Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man” and even a Downchild Blues Band number, “Shotgun Blues.” It didn’t take long to realize that Belushi knew his stuff and despite its origins, this was far from a joke to any of the players. As allmusic later noted, giving it a 4-star rating, “what started as a skit…quickly snowballed to become a true phenomenon” and that “what comes across in these performances is the sincerity of the feeling – that and some tasty playing from a topnotch band.” Rolling Stone at the time had perhaps the best quote, “the band’s got a street-smart sound that’s tighter than a toad’s ass.” Presumably, that is some kind of tight!

The record did well, with “Soul Man” getting to #14 for them in the U.S. and “Rubber Biscuit” also cracking the top 40. The album itself was a surprise #1 hit, and went double-platinum at home, and hit #4 in Aykroyd’s Canada, where it also got them a platinum album. The pair of course put out a movie in 1980 and its soundtrack as well as another live album before Belushi’s untimely death in 1982. Aykroyd’s periodically revisited the “band” for tours, with a variety of new vocalists ranging from actor John Goodman to veteran soul men like Sam Moore and Eddie Floyd.

May 21 – Climax Blues Band Burst Through With Song That Got It Right

The Climax Blues Band hit their “peak” with one of the better singles of the decade hitting #3 on Billboard this day in 1977, “Couldn’t Get It Right.”

By that time, the British blues band had been around for close to a decade (originally they called themselves Climax Chicago Blues Band but they dropped the city name due to confusion with that other Windy City band) and had failed to hit it big. But this grooving single, from the appropriately titled Gold Plated album, was a major breakthrough both in North America and Britain, spending nearly a year on the Billboard charts. The single hit the top 10 in both the UK and Canada as well. As with many of the band’s tunes, Colin Cooper sang the low-range lead and Derek Holt sang harmony about an octave higher; as the Independent recall “vocal harmonies, guitar being played in unison with Cooper’s saxophone…a concise gem of a single equal to the best work of the Doobie Brothers or Ace.”

Holt recalls that the “sign in the middle of the night” he wrote about was a Holiday Inn sign; months of touring made the hotel sign a welcome sight when traveling between gigs. The Climax Blues Band had one more major hit, “I Love You” in 1980 and there’s still a band going although it has none of the original members, 3/5 of whom have passed away unfortunately.

March 25 – Singin’ The Blues For Jeff

Sadly we don’t have Jeff Healey with us anymore to celebrate what would’ve been his 55th birthday. The Canadian blues rocker learned to play guitar at age of 3, two years after he lost his eyesight to a rare form of cancer. While we are blessed with a number of blind keyboardists, like Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles, blind axe-men are a rarer breed. Healey was that rare artist.

By age nine, he was good at it and had perfected his own trademark style of playing it flat on his lap while he sat. Around that time as well, Jeff was becoming not just a fan but a serious authority on old jazz and blues, building his record collection (which eventually would hit 30 000 albums, many of them old 78s), and playing in a blues band that had quite a following in the Toronto club scene. According to Reuters, at a young 16, he was “discovered” there by a Texas counterpart of a guitar legend – Stevie Ray Vaughan.

As the ’80s wound down, he was recording with the Jeff Healey Band, a blues-rock outfit which initially hit it big in the U.S. more than at home, with his 1988 debut album going platinum quickly there and giving him his biggest hit, “Angel Eyes” that went to #5 Stateside. His profile increased more soon after when he got the gig being the house band in the Patrick Swayze movie Roadhouse. His homeland caught up, and by now his first two albums are both multi-platinum in Canada and he would score 5 top 20 hits, the biggest of which was 1991’s “I Think I Love You Too Much.” Healey had several more hits on U.S. rock radio and fans in the likes of ZZ Top, BB King and Vaughan.

Towards the end of the ’90s, his love shifted more towards old-school jazz. He hosted a national radio show on the CBC playing selections from his own jazz record collection and he picked up the trumpet with a band called the Jazz Wizards. As Guitar Player would note, he was “the only cat around who can play the pre-war jazz of Louis Armstrong on the trumpet and the heavy electric blues-rock of ZZ Top on guitar.”

Unfortunately, he succumbed to lung cancer days before his 42nd birthday in ’08; the fourth Jazz Wizards album came out just two weeks afterwards. Toronto named a park after him 3 years later. His wife Christie said of him “he was a person who really loved life, loved a challenge, loved to laugh… these qualities also allowed Jeff to not only set an example but set a standard of what one person can do with determination.”

January 12 – Long John’s Legend Lives On

We remember one of the most-influential musicians that many people have never heard of – Long John Baldry, born this day 80 long years ago in Northamptonshire, England.

The 6’7″ (hence the “Long” prefix to his moniker) gentle giant had minor touches of stardom and commercial success through the years – his slightly bawdry 1967 song “Let the Heartaches Begin” was a #1 hit in Britain, his 1979 single “A Thrill’s A Thrill” was a significant hit in Canada, his concert standout “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie…” is a bit of a cult hit for instance – but the shadow of his influence is far longer and wider-reaching.

As one of the first blues singers in the UK in the ’60s, he started bands that would have as members at one time or another, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Rod Stewart, and a young Reggie Dwight. Dwight would leave that band (Bluesology) and take a different name – Elton John, the “John” a tribute to Baldry. (Elton acknowledges that in his biography Me ,despite the suggestion in the movie Rocketman that “John” was Lennon…who also was a good friend to Elton, as it turns out.) Years later, Elton would credit Baldry for talking him out of committing suicide, which turned into the song “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” Rod Stewart called Baldry “my mentor” and helped produce Baldry’s biggest-selling album, It Ain’t Easy. And then there’s Eric Clapton, who Billboard point out, “was inspired to pick up the guitar after seeing him play.”

Long John died at age 64 in Vancouver, where he had moved to decades earlier. His career is well-documented in several TV specials and the book Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues by Paul Myers.

September 16 – The King Of The Blues

Before there was “the King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, or his father-in-law, “The King”, Elvis, there was a guy who influenced them…and a good chunk of the pop and rock musicians before and since. Today, we’re remembering the birth of the “King of the Blues” 95 years ago today – Riley “B.B.” King.

King grew up poor, raised largely by his grandma, in rural Mississippi and honed his singing skills as well as learned the guitar at the local Pentecostal church. However, his early life was spent picking crops, but when he heard some “Delta blues” on the radio as a teen, he decided that was the life for him. By the early-’40s he’d moved to Memphis and built up a following as “Beale Street Blues Boy”, later “Beale Boy” or BB for short. By 1949 he’d signed with Sam Phillips (who later started Sun Records) and began his lengthy, legendary career. By 2008 he’d put out 43 studio and 16 live albums and was still often performing 200 or more shows a year and he’d eventually win 15 Grammys.

Although he had a string of hits on R&B charts, starting with “3 O’clock Blues” in ’51, and gained a considerable following, widespread recognition of his “voice that groaned and bent the weight of lust, longing and lost love” and guitars which married “country, blues and big city rhythms” (in the words of the New York Times) didn’t come until a couple of decades later. A high-profile show at the Fillmore for “long-haired white people” in ’68, followed by opening for the Rolling Stones on a ’69 tour led him to the mainstream, and his biggest hit, “The Thrill is Gone” in ’70.

Remarkably he didn’t really score a significant “hit” album until 2000’s Riding With The King (a top 5 and 2X platinum in the States), his influence was huge. He was one of the first inductees of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame which called him “the King of the Blues and the genre’s most recognizable and influential artists.”

He never learned to read music and hence played “Lucille” (his name for his Gibson ES345 guitar) by plucking and bending strings rather than strumming or playing complicated chords. King got to play for president Obama at the White House in 2012 not long before he passed away from complications of both dementia and diabetes at age 89. Upon his passing, Eric Clapton called him a “dear friend and an inspiration,” while even country star Brad Paisley noted that “I loved his music and his spirit. He changed music forever.”

August 27 – Blues Fans Were Singing The Blues

A big loss for the musical world 30 years back. Guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan , along with three members of Eric Clapton’s band and a pilot were killed in a helicopter crash in Wisconsin after a Clapton concert this night in 1990. Vaughan was just 35.

The Dallas native by then was well-known for his blues-rock band Double Trouble which put out six studio albums (the last two posthumously) which all went platinum in the U.S. but maybe even more for his session work. He played on James Brown’s comeback hit “Living In America,” Jennifer Warnes’ “First We Take Manhattan” and most-famously, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Bowie had noticed Vaughan, as did much of the music world, at the 1982 Montreaux Jazz Festival. Prior to that, he’d been a favorite in Texas but not widely-known elsewhere.

Vaughan’s older brother Jimmie is also a talented guitarist and the two were always competitive. Stevie Ray grew up in a racially-diverse area of Dallas, and because of young Black friends, listened to a lot of jazz and blues as a youth which greatly influenced his style in later years. He in turn opened up the airwaves for a new generation of Bluesmen like Jeff Healey and Colin James, who along with Bowie, ZZ Top (whom he’d performed with back as far as 1970) and Jackson Browne, were in attendance at his funeral. Texas governor Ann Richards declared Oct. 3’91 “Stevie Ray Vaughan Commemoration Day” in the state. A life-size sculpture of Vaughan with his guitar was put up in Austin in 1993.

August 5 – Stones Didn’t Miss With Disco Foray

Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but you can at least get them to put a new spin on the old ones. Or at least you could the Rolling Stones as they forged on well into their second decade. They hit #1 in the U.S. on this day in 1978 with “Miss You.”

It was the first single off their Some Girls album, the first to have Ronnie Wood onboard as a full-time member and guitarist. Despite Keith Richards’ deepening drug problems in that time period, it was seen as one of their most creative albums of the decade and a return to form after a few less-than-brilliant records.

Considering that by then they used Richards and Wood as guitarists and Mick Jagger played some guitar on the single as well, it wasn’t as much a blow-the-walls down rocker as one might have expected. The Stones were taking note of what was going on in the music world and didn’t want to get left behind. It was the height of the disco revolution and old-style rock and roll wasn’t in vogue. So the Stones set out to get with the times… but do so in their own style.

Miss You” was heavily influenced by going out to the discos,” drummer Charlie Watts confirms. “you can hear it on the four-to-the floor and the Philadelphia-style drumming.” Keith Richards says it “was a damn good disco record.” To whit, the band took the song which is just under five minutes on the LP, under four on the single and put in a bit more dance beat and extended it to eight-and-a-half minutes in their first 12” single.

If you could dance to it, the song about the dude pining for his lost love and his buddies just wanting him to stop his moping didn’t exactly scream “Studio 54” like some other rockers disco hits of that era (think Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” or Kiss’ “I Was Made For Loving You.”) Part of that probably is owing to the fine, and prominent bluesy harmonica played by Sugar Blue, a New York bluesman Mick found busking in Paris! Ian McLagan, formerly of Faces joined in the fun adding some electric piano to the song Mick apparently wrote with a bit of help from Billy Preston when they were jamming in Toronto the year before. (Unfortunately for Preston, he wasn’t credited for writing while Keith Richards was, per the Stones’ norm.)

Miss You” spent a week on top in the States before being deposed by the Commodores, and also made #1 in Canada. It was their seventh U.S. #1 single, but only the second of the ’70s. It got to #3 in the homeland which wasn’t very much home to them at that point, the UK.

Beast of Burden” was the next single off Some Girls and was also a North American top 10 making the album the last of theirs to produce two major hit songs.

July 18 – Six Decades On, Rev. Dion Still Runnin’ Around

Happy birthday to one of rock’s earliest stars – Dion! Dion DiMucci turns 81 today and is still keeping busy. 

Dion grew up in the Bronx and was exposed to the music world early by his dad who was a Vaudeville musician. He grew up loving country and doo-wop music and by age 18 was starting his own career. His first record was called “The Chosen Few” with a band called the Timberlaines, put together by his record company. The tune didn’t do much and DiMucci didn’t get along with the rest of the band so he went back to his neighborhood on Belmont Ave. and got some of his friends together to form The Belmonts. They had a pair of top 10 singles before the decade was out (“Teenager in Love” the most famous) but by 1960, disputes were rampant in the group so he went solo.

Quickly he became one of rock’s first pre-Beatles superstars and teen idols, with seven top 10 hits (including his #1 “Runaround Sue” in ’61) within a few years. His fame faded as the British Invasion took hold although he did score one more major hit with 1968’s “Abraham,Martin and John” about the assassination of MLK and other leaders. Since then he’s overcome drug addiction, become a Born-again Christian, put out several Christian rock albums, toured frequently on the Oldies circuit and was inducted into the Rock & Roll hall of Fame in 1989.

Believe it or not, besides being an active minister (he particularly likes preaching to incarcerated people) he’s still active musically. This summer he released a new album, Blues With Friends, featuring duets with the likes of Brian Setzer, Van Morrison, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Bruce Springsteen and longtime friend Paul Simon.

March 30 – How Fast Would You Expect His Hand To Be At 75?

happy birthday number 75 to rock’s “Forever Man”, Eric Clapton!

By now he does indeed seem like he’s been around in music forever, given that he began as a teenager. Considering his well-publicized addiction to heroin in the ’70s and alcohol in the ’80s, it’s perhaps surprising “Slowhand” is still with us and rocking, but by all indications he’s as healthy and happy as ever and recently has become a Grandfather. Of course, he’s been the Grandfather of Guitar Rock for some time… he got his first guitar when 13 and was obsessed with Blues music. As he put it, “in England we were bombarded with pop music…I was obsessed with Black blues guitar players.” Robert Johnson was his biggest influence and young Eric studied his technique diligently.

By 16 he was busking and playing in clubs in London, by 18 he was in the Yardbirds, where he’d have his first taste of success (“For Your Love”). Stints with Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominoes, plus session work with The Beatles made him a household name, and guitar “god” by the early-’70s, when he launched his solo career. as a solo musician he’s added to the catalog of pop-rock standards with hits like his version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot Sheriff,”“Tulsa Time”and “Change the World”.

To date he’s snagged 15 Grammy Awards since ’91 (including, strangely enough Best Rock Song for “Layla”, the early-’70s hit, in 1993), had 14 platinum albums at home in the UK and 18 in the U.S. and is the only artist thrice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (for his solo material, the Yardbirds and Cream.) Gibson Guitars rank him as the 4th greatest guitarist ever, Rolling Stone in 2011 had him second-best ever. In that publication, Eddie Van Halen said Eric was “the only guitar player who ever influenced me, even though I don’t sound like him.” Even Time magazine gets in on it, ranking him as the fifth greatest guitarist ever, saying he’s “fluent in every blues style (and) among the most melodic of guitarists.” Of course, there are a few dissenters.

Phoenix’s New Times consider him among the ten most over-rated guitarists around (although sharing the list are Jack White, Jimmy Page and The Edge) disliking how much he borrowed from the old Blues artists (“’Strange Brew’ recreates Albert King’s solo for ‘Oh Pretty Woman’ note for note”) and digging up some allegedly racist comments he made in the ’70s… which seem unlikely for someone who’s such an unabashed fan of Black American music, and wouldn’t really determine his guitar skills even if he did once say them! Clapton hasn’t let all that praise go to his head too much; he said The Band put things right in his own career by making “the priority the song,” as he’d “gotten so tired of long, boring guitar solos” and when asked what it was like to be the best guitarist in the world, he once replied “I don’t know- ask Prince.”

In what’s becoming a familiar refrain, we’ll have to wait to see for ourselves how good Eric is. He was scheduled to do an extensive European tour this spring (with hopes of a North American one to follow) but he’s announced that has been put off to early 2021 due to pandemic concerns.