July 9 – People Liked To Lean On Bill’s Sound 50 Years Back

We often celebrate stars who were child prodigies, today we praise one who started late – Bill Withers. Withers had done a stint in the Navy and worked in a factory for years before getting serious about being a musician. But when he did, he didn’t take long to rise to the top. His classic, “Lean on Me” hit #1 on Billboard this day in 1972.

By that time he was in his 30’s and working on his second album, “I could afford to buy myself a little Wurlitzer electric piano” and this was one of the first things he wrote on it. He calls the song of friendship “A rural song that translates across demographics.” That it did! It also hit the top 20 in Canada and the UK and some 14 years later, a dance version by Club Nouveau would also top the charts, making it one of only nine songs to be a #1 hit in the U.S. for two different artists. Withers notes it’s a great song to play when learning piano, “just put your fingers in one position and go up and down the keyboard.”

The upbeat message about being a friend reflects Withers’ philosophy. He grew up in a small town in West Virginia, “where people were a little more attentive to each other, less afraid.” He had other top 10 songs with “Use Me” , “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Just the Two of Us” the Grover Washington Jr. song he did vocals on.

Withers was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, John Legend playing this song at the induction. Sadly he passed away at age 81 two years back.

July 8 – Go Gos Started Going To Stardom

An album actress Drew Barrymore says changed her whole world when she was seven hit the shelves this day in 1981Beauty and the Beat by the Go Gos. The L.A. band was unusual for the time in that it was an all-female group with the girls playing their own instruments.

They’d formed as a punk act in the late-’70s, but after a few years of playing on the Sunset Strip and a few lineup changes, they took on a more pop-flavored sound by the time IRS Records signed them. This, their debut was a hit with fans and critics alike. They became the first all-female group since the Supremes to have an American #1 album and it went double-platinum. Beauty and the Beat featured a pair of hit singles which the band are now synonymous with, “Our Lips are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat” . Both hit the Canadian top 5, but surprisingly their fame and appeal didn’t stretch much beyond our shores. It failed to chart at all in the UK and despite “Our Lips Are Sealed” getting to #2 in Australia, the album itself didn’t sell especially well “down under.” This unfortunately might have merely been a reflection of the budget and marketing limits of IRS; it’s not irrelevant to note that R.E.M. left that label a few years later because they didn’t perceive them to be able to get attention overseas. While the comparison to the Supremes is obvious with them both being all “girl” outfits, the Supremes reigned supreme when it came to hits and longevity but the Go-Gos win out in another way. They wrote their own material (guitarist Charlotte Caffey was actually the most prominent writer on the album but all contributed) and played their instruments.

At the time curmudgeonly critic Robert Christgau rated it “B+” noting “this one’s got hooks” and later on, Spin would list it among the 100 best alternative albums ever and allmusic rated it 4.5 stars, considering it “one of the cornerstone albums of the new wave.”  Rolling Stone would give it 4-stars, calling it a “quick course in power pop” and “exuberance backed with precision.” The exuberance would fade though, as after two less-successful albums, they called it quits by 1985 mainly because singer Belinda Carlisle wanted to go on to a solo career, although they have gotten back together several times this century. Bassist Kathy Valentine remembers those days as being a bit blurry, and a little annoying. “I’m constantly written off as just the bass player in the Go-Gos,” she told a Texas magazine in 2019,”even though for 40 years I’ve been in other bands , I’ve written tons of songs and produced records.” Still she concedes she loves the band being back together now. “We’re very much like sisters, and it’s a new level of appreciation and closeness.” When not working with Belinda, Charlotte and the others, Valentine’s trying to highlight some female contemporaries, working on books about ’70s band Fanny and about session musician extraordinaire Carol Kaye.

Oh, and as for Drew? Well, she got a double thrill last year when she got to induct the Go-Gos into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year and they in turn made her an honorary member (notice the slightly modified album cover above!)

May 3 – Still A Top Jersey Boy, 60 Years Later

Swearin’ to God,” we wish a happy 88th birthday to one of the great voices of the rock era… and the chief “Jersey Boy”- Frankie Valli!

His musical path was set early when he was taken at age 7 to see another Italian-American icon from New Jersey- Frank Sinatra. By the early-’50s he was in a band which in time would become the Four Seasons, a band he still tours with from time to time. They scored their first chart hit back in 1956, and by the time the ’60s ended, they’d notched 21 top 20 hits in the U.S. With songs like “Rag Doll” and “Sherry”, his falsetto (which the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime {voice} with a three octave range”) became one of the defining sounds of the decade. If his blue-eyed soul sounded quite Motown-like it should come as no surprise that Berry Gordy played Valli’s records to his writers telling them it was what they “should be aiming for.”

His career enjoyed a resurgence (both with his band and solo) in the mid-’70s with more #1 hits like “My Eyes Adored You”, “December 1963” and “Grease”, the latter written by Barry Gibb. Gibb later noted, “he created a style we all (Bee Gees) strive to emulate.” Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, writing about the Rock Hall in their city commented that the Four Seasons “with the Beach Boys were the only American groups to maintain their level of popularity during the first onslaught of the British invasion.”

And then some. As you probably know, the musical and at times turbulent life and times of the Four Seasons was made into the Tony Award-winning play, and later movie, Jersey Boys. Valli and the Four Seasons were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Remarkably, he’s still active. He toured with the Four Tops as recently as 2019 and last year put out a new album, A Touch of Jazz, which as the name suggests, contains his take on various  standards and several originals.

Among his many fans is another blue-collar singer from that general area- Billy Joel. Although Joel’s inspiration for his smash “Uptown Girl” may have been Elle McPherson, he wrote the music and sang it in a style meant as an “homage” to Valli.

March 18 – One Last Duckwalk

Remembering one of rock’s Founding Fathers. Chuck Berry passed away five years ago today at his St. Louis area home, at age 90. Bruce Springsteen soon after would say Berry was “rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock’n’roll writer who ever lived.” Although he had a fairly small number of hit records, few if any shaped the future sound of rock as much as Chuck did.

Berry was born in St. Louis, where he spent most of his life, and grew up listening to a mix of Gospel, blues and even country music, all of which would influence the sound he would go on to create. He began playing guitar with a blues group, Johnnie Johnson Trio, around 1950 and by 1955, his idol, Muddy Waters helped him get signed on to Chess Records. His first single, “Maybelline”, got to #5 that year when rock’n’roll was almost an unknown novelty, and as the Wall Street Journal‘s Matthew Osinsky said, “by 1958, Berry had already pioneered much of rock’n’roll’s instrumentation and rhythm.” Not to mention its style -decades before Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk”, Berry came up with perhaps the original rock’n’roll move – his Duckwalk!

Songs like “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Rock & Roll Music” helped him become a popular and successful musician… and inspire the next generation or rock stars. Both the Beatles and Rolling Stones would jumpstart their young careers with covers of his songs, while the Beach Boys did so less directly – Chuck successfully sued them for plagiarizing his “Sweet Little Sixteen” on their “Surfin’ USA.”

Berry kept performing until weeks before his death, although his recording career stalled after his final (and strangely enough, biggest) top 10 hit, 1972’s “My Ding-a-ling.” But he was far from forgotten. President Carter had him perform at the White House and he was in the inaugural class of inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, along with the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly. Nine years after that, he’d play the first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert, with Bruce Springsteen and his E-Street Band being the backing musicians.

His memory shone upon his 2017 death, with the New York Times running a lengthy obituary declaring “with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs (he) did as much as anyone to define rock’n’roll’s potential and attitude.” Mick Jagger said “I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years,” while Bob Seger noted “Chuck had tremendous influence on my work and could not have been a nicer guy.” Which seems like as good a way as any to be remembered. Long may you duckwalk across the rock’n’roll heaven stage, Chuck.

January 23 – Last Alphabetically, But First In CT Fans Hearts?

Another day, another classic rock birthday…happy 69th, Robin Zander! Zander grew up near Chicago was a wee bit late to the party, being the last of the four regular members to join Cheap Trick, but over 45 years later that hardly matters. Zander is the voice of one of Chicago’s premier bands, a group which has been cited by Axl Rose, fellow-Chicagoans Smashing Pumpkins, Def Leppard and Nirvana (among others) as a major influence.

Surprisingly, despite almost constant touring of the upper Midwest in the mid-’70s, their first success was in Japan, where their first two albums (ignored at the time at home) went gold. This led to a successful Japanese tour in ’78, with two shows at the famous Budokan theater being recorded. Cheap Trick at Budokan, the resulting live album was originally only intended for Japanese release, but decent sales of imports led Epic to release it elsewhere. Smart! The live album ended up selling over three million copies in the U.S., being a #1 hit in Canada and resulting in them being regulars on rock radio to this day, in particular because of the live version of this earlier Japanese single.

Although he also plays rhythm guitar for the band quite decently, and has a few songwriting credits, he’s always first and foremost been known as a singer. In 2009 Classic Rock magazine voted Zander the 23rd greatest rock singer around. A few years later, VH1 had him on their list of the 10 most under-rated rock singers, complimenting his “range, style and attitude.” In 2016 the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Think Illinois was proud? Well, the state senate has designated April 1 as Cheap Trick day in the state- no fooling!

Zander’s been married for some time and has four kids, two boys and two girls. All are musicians and son Robin Taylor Zander filled in on bass for a 2021 Cheap Trick tour.

January 15 – People Started Going To A Go-Go

It was a big day for rock – and women’s fashions – in L.A. this night in 1964. That’s because the place for rock & roll in the City of Angels threw it’s doors open. The Whisky A Go-Go, then and now at 8901 West Sunset Blvd. was open for business. Performing its opening night was up-and-coming singer Johnny Rivers, whose first album (At the Whisky A Go Go) was, as the name suggests, recorded there. Historian Glenn Baker says “Johnny Rivers at the Whisky A Go-Go turned Hollywood upside down.”

The Whisky” actually was the second one; one had operated in Chicago for four years and was dubbed as “America’s first discotheque”. But it was comparatively obscure. Not so the Hollywood one. They began having live music almost every night, with dance music played between sets to keep the people movin’. Since space was limited, they hung up a suspended booth above the floor for the DJ to work in, soon they had the idea of having some nice-looking gals in miniskirts and boots up there boogieing too, hence the “go go dancer” craze.

The club quickly became the place to be seen, and the place to hear rock in L.A. If the Troubadour club nearby jump-started any number of pop and folk careers, from Elton John to James Taylor to Linda Ronstadt, the Whisky did the same for more edgy rock acts. Starting with, famously, the Doors. They were the “house band” there during the summer of 1966, playing opening sets for every band that came through the, well, doors, including Rivers, Buffalo Springfield and even The Turtles. They built up quite a name for themselves months before hitting the record store shelves with their psychedelic music and weird Jim Morrison lyrics, although they got fired after about three months after Morrison didn’t show up for their first set, then got weirder than normal in the second set, while high on acid. Around that time, Janis Joplin (first with Big Brother and the Holding Company, then by herself) became a regular bar patron and performer. Before the ’60s came to an end, B.B. King had played it as well as the Monkees and Led Zeppelin, and both Frank Zappa and Alice Cooper were “discovered” there.

Although it wasn’t quite as in vogue in the ’70s, it had a renaissance in the ’80s with the emergence of glam rock/hair metal in the city. Motley Crue and Guns’ N’ Roses both used it as a springboard to international success, a few years after Van Halen had been regulars on the stage. “It became the place to be,” says Chris Hillman of the Byrds, “a great gig.”  How important has the club been in not only the city’s entertainment history, but the history of rock? Well, for starters it – a club – was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, the first building or venue to be so honored.

The Whisky is still up and running these days, closing in on 60 years later. It still has live music advertised nightly (with patrons needing a mask and proof of Covid vaccination) with events like an “ultimate jam night” on the 18th. If you’re down in SoCal, you might want to pop in some night. You never know when you might see the next Doors or Janis Joplin-of-the-future.

September 29 – The Other Side Of Summer…

Summer’s over, and for many that’s the reason for a case of the blues. But on this day in 1958, we got the opinion summer itself might be a reason for that. Eddie Cochran‘s classic “Summertime Blues” peaked at #8 that day, a somewhat big hit that’s gone on to legendary status through the 60+ years since.

Cochran was one of the many young up-and-coming rock stars of the era, a self-taught guitarist from Minnesota who’d begun his career while still high school aged. He was in fact only 19 when he recorded “Summertime Blues”, so it seemed like he was singing from experience! He and his manager wrote the song in under 45 minutes. Time well spent as summer jobs go! Of course the song tells of a teen lad who has to spend his summer working to make money to go out with his girlfriend, but is working so much he doesn’t have free time to spend with her. He complains to his congressman, who informs him he’d love to help except “you’re too young to vote.” Frustration among the kids that resonates and smells like teen spirit decades later.

The song was a hit, as noted making it to #8 at home, and #10 in Canada. In the UK it made #18, but he’d end up having a bigger hit there later, a #1 hit in 1960 called “Three Steps To Heaven.” A bleakly ironic title given that he died in a car crash (he was a passenger in a taxi that also had singer Gene Vincent in it) in Britain that year.

Although he never attained the stardom of fellow doomed young rockers Buddy Holly or Ritchie Valens, let alone the one whose career they were all chasing, Elvis, Cochran did run out a few hits in his brief career and had some noteworthy fans. George Harrison was said to be a very big fan when he was young and even wanted a guitar just like Eddie’s (a Gretsch 6120, Chet Atkins model). And his song about summer made him immortal. Not only was it included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “the songs that shaped rock & roll,” but Rolling Stone has it among their top 100 greatest songs of all-time.

Perhaps more tellingly, “Summertime Blues” has become a rock standard, covered numerous times and played routinely in concert by any number of acts ranging from The Who to the Rolling Stones to the Little River Band. Among the cover versions recorded are one by Brian Setzer for the movie La Bamba; Alan Jackson, who had a #1 country hit in the ’90s with his take Billboard described as “the full, twangy, Chattahoochie treatment;” Joan Jett & the Blackhearts,  the Who and Rush, both of whom scored top 20 hits in Canada (and mainstream rock hits in the States) with their particular takes on it.

May 9 – Gahan Nears 60 In Healthier Mode

Happy 59th birthday to a rocker once not deemed likely to hit that milestone- Depeche Mode’s vocalist Dave Gahan. The rocker with the baritone voice Q pick as the 73rd greatest voice in music has had his share of close encounters with a “Personal Jesus” if you will.

Dave was born David Calcott, but took the last name of his stepfather, who entered the picture when his real, Malaysian father left his mom when he was an infant. The real dad suddenly appeared again when stepdad died a few years later. The stuff of a troubled youth to be sure and Gahan soon ran afoul of the law with his love of stealing cars and setting fires. “I loved the thrill of nicking a motor, screeching off and being chased by police,” he remembers, adding that music saved him.

In 1980 he joined Martin Gore’s band Composition of Sound, which soon changed its name to Depeche Mode, a phrase Dave had seen in a fashion magazine. It was a win-win for all concerned, including listeners! Depeche Mode are still active and have put out 14 studio albums, scored 43 top 40 songs in the UK, had 15 #1 songs on the Indie chart in the ’80s (second only to New Order), made a movie out of their sold-out show at the Rose bowl and by most measures the most successful band to come out of England’s new wave scene. Fittingly then, last year they became the first prototypically “new wave” band to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Along the way he’s put out a couple of solo records, the first of which, 2003’s Paper Monsters, didn’t attract a lot of attention in the traditional markets like the U.S. or UK but was a top 10 in most continental European countries and earned him a gold record in Russia!

Gahan now seems happy and healthy after being nicknamed “the Cat” for his “nine lives”….not only did he OD several times in the ’90s, he once had a heart attack on stage and in 2009 battled cancer! Long may he sing!

April 7 – A Long Journey For Some To Rockhall

Not everyone adores the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame but few can deny that within their building’s walls are some rather cool exhibits and some very great musicians honored. Or that at times, they’ve put on great shows. Such was the case on this day in 2017 when they had their annual induction ceremony at the Barclay Center in New York City. Among the acts they honored that night were Journey, Yes, ELO, Pearl Jam and Joan Baez. Quite a panorama of the “rock” world that, from the folk rock scene of the ’60s with Joan through the ’70s Prog Rock of Yes and melodic pop of Jeff Lynne’s ELO through the ’80s classic rock of Journey into ’90s grunge with Pearl Jam.

Many felt it was a case of “better late than never.” While Pearl Jam, grunge’s most enduring major band by far were in their first year of eligibility – the Hall requires a 25 year minimum timespan between an artist’s first album and induction – the others had shone for decades before 2017. Baez of course jumped to international fame with her performance at Woodstock. Yes made their debut that same year, 1969 (Geddy Lee of Rush who inducted them joked “we thought we had to wait a long time”) and ELO not long after that, nor Journey, always a fan favorite but not always awarded the same respect from critics despite their 11 platinum albums in the U.S., including their Greatest Hits which has sold beyond 15 million copies.

Of Journey, the hall says “call the style what you will – arena rock, stadium rock, concert rock – Journey dominated in the ’70s and ’80s”. It was a treat for fans to see Steve Perry, the voice that elevated them to superstar status, back with them, although ironically when it came time to perform, new singer Arnel Pineda (not one of the seven members listed as such by the hall) took the mic, Perry graciously saying Pineda “sings his heart out every night.”

Pearl Jam were going to have their friend and significant influence, Neil Young induct them but Neil pulled out at the last minute, leaving David Letterman to fill in. The talk show host joked about Neil (“poor guy just can’t stay up this late anymore”) and endeared himself to the band by calling Ticketmaster “blood-thirsty weasels.” Many may remember the group’s outspoken criticism of that agency and taking the unusual stance of not having their concerts distributed by them at times.

Alex Lifeson of Rush called Yes his “gateway band”, the one which he listened to endlessly as a teen which really got him wanting to play music himself. Not surprising perhaps because in their early years, Rush were a prog rock act not that different than Yes, who as the Hall put it “pushed the boundaries of rock…they created complex, progressive and virtuosic rock suites.” Geddy joined them onstage in their performance.

Another boundary-pusher were ELO, which the Hall suggest started by “picking up where the Beatles left off…expanded the concept of great melodies, epic song structure and great orchestrations.” Something which must make Lynne proud, given his fondness for the Beatles, being asked to work with them in the ’90s remastering some of their early works and his work with George Harrison in the Traveling Wilburys. Fittingly, George’s son Dhani inducted the band.

Those in attendance got to see the acts each perform and Lenny Kravitz do a tribute to Prince, who’d died the previous year to boot. For a finale, even though Neil Young wasn’t there, one of his songs was. Pearl Jam, along with members of Yes, Neal and Geddy of Rush and Neal Schon jammed together on “Rockin’ in the Free World” as a finale. A good time was had by all, one which perhaps will begin being replicated soon … now that David Letterman’s words that night seem strangely prophetic and wise – “never take the opportunity for live music for granted.”

This year’s ceremony is slated to take place in Cleveland, near the museum itself, on October 30. Ironically, tickets are available through Ticketmaster.

March 6 – Time To Put King, Queen Of Song, In Hall

Well it’s that time of year again, for what it’s worth. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is conducting its fan vote to suggest who should be next to be inducted in. The hitch is it’s just a suggestion – last year’s leaders Pat Benatar and Dave Matthews were both snubbed by the institution anyway.

However, since it is open to the public to allow us to have our say, this year boasts a decent crop of artists who should be considered… the Foo Fighters (who if included, would make Dave Grohl among the rare group of musicians inducted twice, the first time being with Nirvana), Todd Rundgren, whom I have advocated for in the past on the basis of both his recording work and his producing, and heavies Iron Maiden for starters. But this year fans, let’s work to get Carole King in there. It is “Women’s Day Weekend” after all!

King’s one opus – Tapestry – should get her consideration on its merit alone. The great folk-rock album which she largely wrote as well as performed started the rise of the female singer-songwriter to mainstream popularity in 1971. It was the first album ever by a female to sell more than 10 million copies, ended up diamond status in the U.S. after spending over 300 weeks on the charts, winning the Album of the Year Grammy and delivering such timeless soft rock hits as “I Feel the Earth Move” and “It’s too Late.” Later on she’d add to her discography with hits like “Jazz Man” and “Sweet Seasons” as well as work on scores of movie, well, scores. But that is only the beginning. Before Tapestry, King was one of the most successful songwriters of the early days of rock and the most prominent woman in the Brill Building.

Working mostly with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, she ended up coming up with 118 songs that have hit the Billboard charts. Lennon & McCartney for comparison’s sake penned fewer than half that number together. Among her hits were the Shirelles “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, a #1 in the States, “I’m Into Something Good”, a #1 for Herman’s Hermits in the UK, and “Locomotion” which hit #1 in the ’60s for Little Eva, #1 in the ’70s for Grand Funk and the top 5 in the ’80s for Kylie Minogue. “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and other Monkees songs, “A Natural Woman”… all Carole. The Drifters, Ben E. King, Dusty Springfield, The Byrds, Aretha Franklin, Bryan Ferry … a lot of the greats of rock’s first two decades got great singing Carole King songs. That’s worth a plaque in the Cleveland museum.

As of Friday evening though, King was running a distant sixth in the voting with about 142 000 votes. Ahead of her were some worthy – Foo Fighters, Tina Turner – some more iffy and one just downright bizarre. As of now, leading all nominees is the “famous” Fela Kuti, with 226 000 votes. Kuti was a Nigerian bandleader and star in the “Afrobeat” scene whose life was made into a 2008 musical called Fela! A talented man by all accounts but one who seems to have little association with American rock & roll and who’s never charted a record in the States, UK or most other countries associated with the music. His runaway lead in the voting illustrates either the impressive global reach of the internet or the rock world’s idea of a “buy Gamestop stock” prank.

So if inclined, go vote away through April. And give a thought to the lady named King who was the Queen of song for many of the formative years of rock.