May 4 – And The Winner Is…

Every tradition has to begin somewhere, sometime. In the case of music, one of the biggest got going in both New York & L.A. 64 years ago. That was the first Grammy Awards, held in 1959 for the 1958 year in music. Over six decades later, despite the jokes and criticisms they are still the industry standard. Sure, there are American Music Awards, Junos, Brits, CMAs… but a Grammy is the one that has the prestige and carries weight (and the weight is about five pounds per trophy in case you’re wondering.)

The awards were thought up by the people behind the Hollywood Walk of Fame. They noticed that the movies and even the relatively new-fangled television had awards to honor their best, but music didn’t. So they coupled with the Recording Academy to change that and give out trophies for musical excellence and have a fancy ceremony/party to do so. They had a contest to pick a name, and Jay Danna from New Orleans won with the suggestion, a shortened version of “gramophone”, which they decided to use as the main theme for the trophy itself.

The first awards, split between fancy hotels in Manhattan and Hollywood, handed out 28 awards. By the early-’00s, it had grown to over 100 a year; after a little scaling back and reconfiguring of categories, there are 91 currently. NBC filmed the awards and aired them, although not live. It wasn’t until ABC took over the broadcasts that they were shown coast-to-coast in real time on TV.

Actor-comedian Mort Sahl hosted the first ones (although it’s not stated if he was the West coast or East coast one) and since then they’ve used a line of famous actors, comedians and only infrequently, musicians, as hosts. Andy Williams holds the record, hosting seven straight (1971-77), followed by John Denver with six. Denver has the distinction of being the host to the most-watched ones, the 1984 edition which over 50 million people tuned into… although more probably were waiting for Michael Jackson’s moonwalking appearance than hoping to see the bespectacled country singer. This year’s Awards drew about 12 million viewers by comparison.

Among the big awards were the first winners for Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year. Henry Mancini’s Music from Peter Gunn won the Album, beating out two Frank Sinatra ones among others. Song of the Year (basically for the actual song lyrically and melody-wise) and Record of the Year (for best-sounding song, with the producers and engineers also being credited) both went to “Nel Blu Dipinto de Blu” by Domenico Modugno. Not familiar? The hit was better known as “Volare”, and to this day it’s still the only foreign-language song (Italian) to win best song. Among the competitors it beat out was … “The Chipmunk Song”. By The Chipmunks. Don’t feel sorry for the singing rodents though, they won three awards that night, for Best children’s Recording, Best Comedy Album and Best Engineered, non-classical recording. Interestingly, comedy records were a much bigger deal back then; a Bob Newhart stand-up routine won the Best Album in 1961. Other winners in the first show were Ella Fitzgerald and Perry Como in their “pop” category and The Champs rockin’ “Tequila” which was classified as the Best R&B record!

Obviously there’s always debate and arguments aplenty over the winners and losers, and there’ve been some obvious missteps, perhaps none more glaringly than Milli Vanilli who had to give back their 1990 Best New Artist one after it was found that the supposed winning duo didn’t perform on it. Certainly some greats like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Elton John seem to have been overlooked relative to their importance and enduring records, and at times the Awards seem to play catch-up, like naming Ray Charles the winner of Album of the Year posthumously in 2005 and Steely Dan winning their first in that category in 2001. But in general, one would probably agree that the list of winners, at least for the 20th Century have been a pretty good, if perhaps conservative, list of records and artists who mattered. Since then… well, debate amongst yourself if you think Beyonce really should have more wins than any other act , ever?

And if you were wondering, the actual trophies are gold-plated and hand-made in Colorado by Billings Artworks. The owner John, and his small staff make the awards each year, personally drive them to the Awards pre-ceremony and then engrave nameplates for them when winners are announced.


December 1 – Doobies Smooth Transition Gamble Paid Off

It’s almost difficult to believe this is the same hippie bar band that came out of California in 1970.” So opined Rolling Stone and it was difficult to disagree with them. Whether or not fans liked it, by the decade’s end, the Doobie Brothers didn’t sound all that much like they did in the beginning. We got evidence of that with Minute By Minute, which came out this day in 1978, their eighth studio album which kept their pace of releasing one new album per year to that point. Judging by the results, most of the fans did like it.

The transition towards smooth pop from “bar band” rock had really begun a little over a year earlier, when Tom Johnston left the band (he does make a cameo doing some background vocals on one track on this album mind you). The band brought in Michael McDonald to replace him, Michael instantly taking over co-leadership of the group with Patrick Simmons, one of the founding members and the creator of their previous big (and decidedly not “rock”) hit, “Blackwater.” Unlike Lennon & McCartney who although quite different often were able to collaborate, Simmons and McDonald appeared two distinct entities and voices. By Minute By Minute, it seemed the tide was turning towards McDonald being the dominant one.

The 10-song, 36 minute work seemed split between the two, with six of them – including all three singles – being primarily written by McDonald and the others by Simmons. Tying it all together was Ted Templeman, their long-time producer. Although the album did have some bits of rock-ish material and an instrumental hoedown (Simmons’ “Steamer Lane Breakdown”) the overall effect was well-produced pop-by-way-of-Blue-eyed-soul… as the singles clearly demonstrated. There was “What A Fool Believes”, which McDonald had penned with Kenny Loggins, the title track and “Depending on You”, the only joint composition between the two main men, sung by Simmons.

If you liked the sound, you’d like the album by and large. Rolling Stone gave it a good 4-star review, making it clear in their review why. They suggested “Simmons numbers are no better than second-rate lounge fare,” but McDonald was “their only hope of becoming something more than a fading, middleweight ‘people’s’ boogie band,” he being the “greatest White blues singer since Joe Cocker (and) also a gifted songwriter.” Allmusic later would grade it the same, but were a little less blunt in their assessment. They call the record “pretty compelling” and where “the ‘new’ Doobie Brothers really make their debut, with a richly soulful sound throughout and emphasis on horns and McDonald’s piano more than on Patrick Simmons or Jeff Baxter’s guitars.” Speaking of Baxter, he perhaps didn’t care for that shift; he quit the band after this one came out.

The album certainly connected with the masses however. “What A Fool Believes” became their second #1 hit at home and also topped charts in Canada, although Britain received it more coolly, reaching just #31 there. “Minute by Minute” and “Depending On You” both were top 30 hits in North America as well, leaving them with a tally of 13 American top 40 hits in the decade, only one shy of the Eagles. The album became their only #1 one in the U.S. and Canada, and hit #6 in Australia and New Zealand. The UK yawned apparently , with it not hitting the charts! At home, however, at triple platinum it is their biggest hit outside of the Best Of compilation. The Grammy Awards took a shine to it as well; it took home the Best Performance Pop Group trophy as well as Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “What A Fool Believes.”

Surprisingly both McDonald and Simmons, as well as Johnston are all in the current touring version of the Doobies.

October 30 – U2 Left Behind ’90s Experimentalism

It was time to put the 20th Century to rest, the U.S. was seeing the Clinton presidency come to its end…and U2 decided to ditch the ’90s as well. Twenty years ago they put out their tenth studio album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, arriving this day in 2000. And while not exactly War redux, it was certainly a return to the basics that made them so popular in the ’80s as opposed to a continuation of the sometimes odd musical experimentation they’d had on the previous trio of albums, Achtung Baby (and mainly) Zooropa and Pop.

Pop took the deconstruction of the rock & roll band format to the nth degree,” guitarist The Edge says, adding they wanted a return to more basic guitar/bass/drums-oriented songs. As well, for the first time in nine years, they went back to the producers they knew well that had delivered the goods for them in the past, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. That pair had guided the band in the studio through their most successful period, from The Unforgettable Fire through Achtung Baby.

The result was an 11 song set that returned to more conventional territory…and to strong praise for the band. While The Edge’s edgy guitars weren’t as blazing as they had been two decades prior, there was no shortage of catchy rock songs exploring a vast array of feelings, from the bold, upbeat lead single, “Beautiful Day” through the frustration of “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” to the gentler optimism of “Peace on Earth.” The latter, along with a song entitled “New York” and the cover, apparently showing the band in an airport later had some convinced it was written about the 9/11 attacks…but, seeing as how the record came out almost a year before that, well, that seems improbable!

Critics who’d not necessarily cared for the band’s electronica experiments of the second half of the ’90s generally were impressed. Entertainment Weekly graded it an “A” saying it was “startling” and a “welcome reversal of fortune” for the quartet. Rolling Stone graded it 4-stars and declared it the band’s “third masterpiece” after The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Three years on, they’d rank it among the 200 greatest records of all-time, suggesting it was “full of ecstacy, mourning and release”. Across the sea in the UK, the NME rated it 7 out of 10 and Q posted it as a 4-star release.

Fans agreed. It hit #1 in the UK, the band’s own Ireland, Australia and Canada, where it was their seventh. In the States, it stalled at #3, but still went 4X platinum, contributing to worldwide sales topping 12 million. Strangely, the album’s missing the top spot in the U.S. was probably based on lukewarm response to the singles. “Beautiful Day” only got to #21, and other released missed the top 40 altogether, whereas in Canada, four singles made it to #1: “Beautiful Day”, “Walk On”, “Elevation” (a #1 in Ireland too) and “Stuck in a Moment…” Two of those songs got U2 into the record books, and books about records. “Beautiful Day” won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 2001, and “Walk On” took the same award in ’02, making it the first album to ever launch two “records of the year”. Seems it was a good thing that conventional rock sound was one of the things U2 couldn’t leave behind!

In honor of the 20th Anniversary of the album, U2 are released several new editions of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2020, including heavy vinyl LP versions and CD box sets with photos from Anton Corbijn and a concert DVD from the subsequent tour.

October 27 – Knight Took The Express To The Top

Trains are just a cooler, more romantic mode of transport than planes. Perhaps it’s because you actually see the countryside passing by, maybe it’s the slower pace means you talk to people more along the way. Either way, Arlo Guthrie’s big breakout hit in 1972 was about the Illinois Central train “The City of New Orleans” not a Pan Am flight; Steve Perry sang about all the losers taking the “midnight train” years later on Journey’s megahit “Don’t Stop Believin’”; Kenny Rogers would barely have had time to play a hand of blackjack with “The Gambler” if they were in a 747 instead of a Pullman coach. So it is probably a good thing someone along the way had the idea of changing Jim Weatherly’s plane to a “train”. And sending it to Georgia helped too… but we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. This week in 1973 well-established soul sensation Gladys Knight & The Pips made the bigtime, hitting #1 on the singles chart with “The Midnight Train To Georgia.” Surprisingly, by that time they’d been at it for over twenty years. More surprising, at that time Gladys was still in her 20s!

The Pips were essentially a singing family which started in the most innocent and humble of ways – singing at a child’s birthday party. Gladys’ mom suggested she, her sister Brenda and two cousins sing at their brother Bubba’s tenth birthday party, in 1952. They did, and it must’ve sounded good. Within months, 7 year-old Gladys was winning a local TV talent contest and the mother had them, with Bubba along too, singing at shows around Atlanta. Not long after they signed with Brunswick Records; by 1961 they’d scored their first big hit on R&B radio – “Every Beat of My Heart.” They’d soon sign to Motown and by 1973, had 16 top 10s on the R&B charts, including a #1 with their version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” But a big breakthrough into mainstream radio was elusive for them. Until they took the surprising step of leaving Motown and signing with the smaller Buddah label. Buddah was a fairly new company then, associated with MGM and distributor of Essex (Bill Withers label) and Charisma (home to then-not-so-well-known Genesis at the time.)

They left Motown on a high-note, with a single that got to #2 on Billboard – “Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)” . Buddah however, was where everything really clicked. The first LP they did for that label, Imagination, was their first gold one and besides this hit, it also had another R&B #1/ mainstream top 10 in another Weatherly single, “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” Both singles also made the top 10 in both Canada and the UK, where their exposure had been a little more limited than at home.

Weatherly originally wrote the great track as a country song he called “Midnight Plane to Houston”, allegedly after talking to Farrah Fawcett one night on the phone and asking her what she was up to. She answered she was going to hop a midnight flight to Texas and his mind and pen got working. However, someone – in all likelihood Whitney Houston’s mom, Cissy – thought a train to Georgia sounded better. Houston recorded her own version of the song earlier in the year, but soon Gladys’ would be the only one that mattered. It made her and The Pips a household name, so much so that they soon would have their own short-lived TV variety show. It won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo, one of three they’ve put on their shelf in that category.

The Pips kept singing until 1989 and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in ’96; Gladys has had a solo career off and on since. A good thing since her voice is great indeed. Rolling Stone picked her as the 51st greatest singer of all-time, praising her “pop elegance and soul power” and adding that she “approaches singing with inspiring seriousness.” She was a voice on an ’80s smash as well – the AIDS charity single “That’s What Friends Are For” with Elton John, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder. More recently, she’s been keeping herself active with her church and being the namesake co-owner of three restaurants in the Atlanta area – Gladys Knight’s Chicken & Waffles. As well, she sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 2019, the same year she was an ongoing contestant on the TV show The Masked Singer.

Interestingly, not only were trains popular in pop music in the ’70s, so too was Georgia. TV star Vicki Lawrence had a #1 hit only months before Knight’s one, with “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, Brook Benton had revived his career in 1970 singing about a “Rainy Night In Georgia”, and of course, later on people outside of the bluegrass/country field would find out who Charlie Daniels was when he told the story about “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” Perhaps people might like “California Dreaming” but they just prefer to hear songs about the Peachtree state!

September 15 – And The Golden Fiddle Goes To…

Four days back we looked at his rollicking, patriotic hit from 1980. Today we go back a year prior, to 1979 and an even bigger and more unusual hit. North Carolinian bluegrass fiddler/guitarist Charlie Daniels and his self-named band hit #3 on Billboard this week with “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”

Daniels had been a fairly popular Nashville session musician through the decade being used by the likes of Bob Dylan and the Marshall Tucker Band. He’d even had some success on country radio but this romping tale about the brash young Johnny who beats the devil in a fiddling contest, was the crossover he needed to make him a household name, not to mention the holder of a 3X platinum record in his Million Mile Reflections. The song won the Grammy for Best Country Performance by a band, garnered him a top 5 in Canada as well.

Which shows always expect the unexpected in music. Otherwise in 1979, disco was still king, Donna Summer was the biggest individual artist and Rod Stewart had perhaps the biggest hit of his career by putting a disco beat to his sexy lyrics. Daniels credits the 1925 poem The Mountain Whip-poor-will for inspiration and tells people who argue the devil actually fiddled better in the record “if you listen, there’s just noise. There’s no melody to it.”

August 12 – The Sultan Of Six-strings

Happy birthday to a man who took everyday experiences like dropping into a neighborhood bar or shopping at an electronics store and turned them into memorable rock anthems! Mark Knopfler turns 73 today.

Knopfler is more than just Dire Straits – but that’s a pretty good place to start the conversation. As the singer, guitarist and primary writer for the band he’s responsible for some of the most memorable hits of the late-’70s and ’80s like “Sultans of Swing”, “Industrial Disease”, “Twisting By the Pool”  and of course “Money For Nothing” from the Britain’s biggest-selling album of the ’80s, Brothers In Arms. But after he, his brother David and the rest of Dire Straits called it a day (for the most part) in 1988 he’s had a pretty good run as well. He’s put out eight solo albums, seven of which have hit the top 10 at home in his UK; done movie soundtracks for several popular films including The Princess Bride and Wag the Dog, and has helped out on numerous other artists’ records. That list includes the likes of John Fogerty, Tina Turner (co-producing her Break Every Rule album), Jeff Healey, Steely Dan and Bob Dylan, as well as country star Chet Atkins with whom he’s won a trio of Grammys. He has another in the rock category for “Money for Nothing” with his name band! It all adds up to being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire and being ranked as the 44th greatest guitarist of all-time by Rolling Stone in 2011. they call him an “intensely creative virtuoso” and note how he’s unusual in playing guitar without a pick (bound to give you a blister on your finger!) “Playing with your fingers has something to do with immediacy and soul,” he believes. Curiously, Knopfler is a southpaw but plays a normal, right-handed guitar. That is workin’!

Although possibly, it’s now retirement time for Mark. He toured in 2019 and suggested that would be his last one. But if so, he leaves with quite a legacy – not only has he won Brit Awards, he has Grammys in both Rock and Country fields as well as Juno (Canadian) and Edison (Dutch) Awards as well as a Lifetime Achievement one from the Ivor Novellos.

August 4 – Duo Exited On A High Note

Talk about going out in style. Simon & Garfunkel pulled off a rare feat with their swan song album, Bridge over Troubled Waters. It was the #1 LP this day two years running – 1970 and ’71 – in the UK, all part of an incredible 33 weeks the album would spend on top of the British charts between Feb. 1970 and Sep. 1971. Not surprisingly then it was the biggest-selling album of not only those two years but the whole decade in the UK, where it sold enough copies to go 10X platinum (putting it into the lofty heights generally reserved for the Beatles at that point.)

It did pretty well elsewhere too; it hit #1 in their U.S. for ten weeks and was the year’s biggest there, as well as Canada, Australia and several other countries and sold in the range of 20 million copies in total. No wonder. As journalist Bruno MacDonald put it, “like Dylan, (Paul) Simon wrote literate lyrics. But like Smokey Robinson, he wrote lovely songs that everyone…could sing.” The album featured the popular “Only Living Boy in New York” plus the hits “The Boxer”, “Cecilia”, “El Condor Pasa” and the powerful title track.

However, it also marked the rapid approach of the end for the duo whom were a personal fave of their record label’s boss, Clive Davis . Garfunkel isn’t credited with any writing on the album as Paul Simon wrote it while staying in New York as Art Garfunkel went off to film a movie in Mexico for months. After this album came out, Garfunkel went off to work on another film while Simon began getting stuff ready for his solo career which blossomed soon after. But as MacDonald put it, they “exited with more grace” than The Beatles. And a bunch of trophys. It ended up winning six Grammy Awards – Album of the Year, Best Engineered Album, Song of the Year , Best Contemporary song and Record of the Year (for the title track) and Best Vocal Arrangements. As successful as Paul Simon was on his own, he never came close to that kind of acclaim, although he did take home a pair of Grammys for both of Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland.

Not surprisingly, no other album for the rest of the 20th Century could claim the #1 spot in Britain on days one year apart.

August 3 – People Began To Wonder How Much Better Stevie Could Get

He was, and remains, a wonder. The great Stevie Wonder put out his highly-regarded Innervisions album this day in 1973. Stevie was by that time an almost-household name and a ten year veteran of the music scene despite only being 23. It was his fifth studio album of the decade, and he’d added a couple of live ones as well. and that was on top of his extensive recording as a teen “wonder” in the ’60s!

The child protege of the ’60s had turned into a fully accomplished musician and this album continued to prove it. He wrote all the songs, co-produced it and played the vast majority of instruments on it, from piano to synthesizers (it was the first hit album to use an ARP brand synth), to tambourines and even drums! And what songs he wrote!

The album was about half and half between solid love songs and very socially-aware rants. As Rolling Stone put it, “Stevie Wonder may be blind but he reads the national landscape.” For every beautiful “Golden Lady” or “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” there was a scathing “Too High” or “Living for the City,” or “Mistra Know-it-all” a thinly veiled barb aimed at then-president Nixon.

The album did well for Wonder. The great singles “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” each topped R&B charts, his eighth and ninth toppers there. Overall, they reached #4 and #8 respectively in the U.S. and both were in the Canadian top 20, while the third single “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” made it three-straight top 20s in North America. “Living for the City” got to #15 in Britain, which had been lukewarm to Stevie to that point. the album itself hit #4 in the U.S. and was his first top 10 in the UK.

Critics liked it then, love it now. It won him his first Album of the Year Grammy (he’d win two more in the next three years) . The album seems to have grown in import though through the years, with Slant, Music Hound and allmusic each grading it a perfect 5-stars. Allmusic say of it “when Stevie applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early-’70s, he produced one of the greatest, most important works (of the era).” Rolling Stone seem to agree, ranking it among the 30 greatest albums of all-time, saying he was “expressing color in irresistible funk”. VH1 ranked it among their greatest albums ever, noting in a 2001 summary that seems even more apt today, “Wonder seems to be warning the Black community to be aware of their own plight, strive for improvement.”

Innervisions came uncomfortably close to being Wonder’s swan song. Only three days after it was released, he was the passenger in a major car crash that left him in a coma for days and without a sense of smell for a long time. thankfully he recovered and amazingly, put out his next album less than a year later. Michael Sembello, who sometimes played guitar with Stevie said “he’d always had some awareness of the spiritual side of life. but after the accident (it) made him recognize God…he got really intense.” And by the grace of God, for awhile his music seemed to get even better with that intensity. A “wonder” in many senses.

July 8 – People Relish-ed Joan’s First Course

There was a little surge in interest in songs about God and spirituality in the midst of the otherwise grungy-’90s. A few days back we mentioned Dishwalla and their hit “Counting Blue Cars” that rubbed some people the wrong way. Today we wish a happy birthday to a singer who had a big hit around the same time that also dealt with God…and rubbed some people the wrong way. Joan Osborne turns 60 today.

Joan is widely considered a ’90s “one hit wonder”, and commercially that’s entirely true. But there’s more to her than “One of Us.” She was born near Louisville in a very Catholic household (hence the interest in God, perhaps) and at one time wanted to be a priest. When she found out Catholic rules against women in clergy and some of their other practices which clearly favored men, she left that church but she still considers herself “deeply spiritual” and drawing on both Christian and Buddhist influences.

She moved to the Big Apple to study film at NYU, but somehow found herself singing at a lot of bar open nights and coffee shops. Soon that overtook her interest in film-making and she devoted herself to music full-time, playing guitar and singing and before long opening for bands like Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler in New York.

In 1991 she started her own record company, Womanly Hips (which her two most recent albums have come out on) but she somehow fell in with the band The Hooters. They helped her get signed to Mercury Records for her debut album, 1995’s Relish and helped her along on making it. Rick Chertoff, a producer who was friends with that band and had produced Cyndi Lauper records produced her album and got Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian from it to play on it (as well as bassist Mark Egan from the Pat Metheny Band.) Bazilian was a particularly useful contact for her. He’d written the song “One of Us” to impress his girlfriend (who soon became his wife) and had recorded it but not released it. Osborne liked it and decided to do it herself

And that made all the difference for Joan and her career. The song described by allmusic as “ a simple, direct statement of faith, honest and unadorned, one framed in a near-perfect chorus and delectable Neil Young-ish guitar riff” (played by Bazilian on a vintage Les Paul guitar.) But needless to say, that didn’t impress some. Lyrics about what if God was “a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus” irked some no end, although unlike the Dishwalla song there seemed to at least be no threats on her life as a result!

What did result was her making a big splash on her arrival on the scene. The song hit #1 in Australia and Canada and #4 in the U.S., where it went gold. It almost single-handedly made Relish one of the season’s most in-demand tasty ear treats, going top 10 in most Western countries and selling triple-platinum at home. The follow-up single, “St. Theresa” made the UK top 40 but elsewhere, “One of Us” was all she wrote when it came to Osborne on radio or TV. That was enough though, one would think. It got her nominated for five Grammys including Best New Artist (which she lost to Hootie and the Blowfish) and Record of the Year (which she lost to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.”)

It also helped her be a headliner for the 1997 and ’98 Lilith Fair tours. What it didn’t do was prompt her to go back to the studio; five years passed before she put out an album of new material, 2000’s well-reviewed Righteous Love, which had her cover of Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” as a single. Sales however, were far from righteous and soon she’d be recording on her own label, or other equally small indie ones. Which seemed to suit her fine; in an appearance on Austin City Limits around that time she said she was “happy to have gotten out of the limelight.”

She’s kept busy since, recording eight more studio albums (including one of Bob Dylan covers) as well as dueting at times with the likes of Stevie Wonder and even Luciano Pavarotti. As well she’s produced records for the respected Gospel/Soul act The Holmes Brothers and toured with Motown’s great session players, The Funk Brothers. In 2015, she toured with Mavis Staples.

Currently she lives in Brooklyn with her partner and 17 year-old daughter, and just put out an album called Radio Waves, consisting of live performances she’s done on radio including KROQ in L.A. and a version of ‘One of Us” done on Dutch radio. That follows hot on the heels of the more political Trouble and Strife, an album Rolling Stone picked as one of “18 great albums you might have missed” in 2020. She’ll be touring late this summer and fall, largely in the Northeast and Colorado. One place she won’t show up at will apparently be Houston’s Woodlands Ampitheater. That venue allegedly banned her after she talked about and promoted Planned Parenthood at a show there. Which makes one wonder if God was “one of us” if he wouldn’t tell us all to calm down a little and be more tolerant of different beliefs?

May 30 – New Philosophy Put Winwood Back In Charts High Life

A Change Will Do You Good” is a Sheryl Crow tune from the ’90s but it might as well have been the personal anthem for Steve Winwood about a decade earlier. He managed to change his philosophy on life and music, as well as his home and partner all in a short span of the mid-’80s and the result was his biggest solo work, Back in the High Life. That, his fourth solo album, came out this day in 1986.

Winwood at the time was 38, but had already been a fixture in rock for over two decades, being a young prodigy in the band Spencer Davis Group, then in Traffic and Blind Faith. However, his pace had slowed down as a solo artist, owing to a couple of things. A nearly fatal case of peridonitis (a side effect of a burst appendix) in ’72 had made him re-evaluate his priorities and begin a healthier, non-”rock and roll” lifestyle and as Rolling Stone note, his being both “a loner and a perfectionist.” Indeed, on the prior album, Talking Back to the Night, he played all the instruments himself and recorded it at home.

For this one, the project originally began similarly but he had a change of heart. In more ways than one. His marriage had begun to fail and he’d met someone new (whom he’d soon marry), an American called Eugenia. So he decided on a change of venue, left for New York and recorded most of the album there, inviting in a number of talented helpers. While Steve still composed the album and played most of the keyboards (plus guitars and mandolins at times), he did involve a host of session musicians including Nile Rodgers on guitar, Joe Walsh (who co-wrote “Split Decision” with him) on slide guitar and Chaka Khan and James Taylor, among others, for backing vocals.

It was a conscious decision by Steve to change courses. He said back then “ a recent thing that I’ve realized (is) music being entertainment.” Before, he says he thought “I’m a musician, I’m not an entertainer” but he began to realize that fan appreciation mattered too. “I spent a lot of years doing stuff where people would say ‘that’s brilliant’ but nobody bought it. That’s also a bad situation… you want to be heard.”

Heard he was. Back in the High Life rocketed up the charts and became his biggest-seller. So ready for radio was it that seven out of the eight tracks were released as singles in one market or another. Pity “My Love’s Leavin’”, the only track on the album not available as a vinyl 45! The lead single, “Higher Love” , with Chaka Khan behind him vocally, became his first American #1 single and also topped Canadian charts, and is to date his only top 10 in Australia. Strangely it only made it to #13 in the UK, where he oddly seems considerably less popular than in North America, despite being British. Subsequent singles “The Finer Things”, “Freedom Overspill” and the title track all made it into the U.S. top 20 as well and the album got to #3 there. It was also a top 10 in Canada, the UK and most “western” markets, eventually selling around 6 million copies, half in the U.S. where it’s triple platinum.

If the public adored the new version of Steve, critics were varied in their opinions. Robert Christgau rated it only “C” and called him “a wunderkind with more talent than brains” who churned out “well-wrought banalities.” Rolling Stone, on the other hand called it his “first undeniably superb record” who finally “found the knack of shining without awkwardness.” Down the road, allmusic would rate it 4.5-stars, as good as any of his calling it his “pinnacle” of the ’80s, “melding a range of aesthetics in ways that invariably connect with the listener.”

Grammy voters figured the same. The album won three Grammys, including Best Engineered as well as Best Male Pop Performance for Steve and Best Record for “Higher Love.”