Cautionary rock tales on film: A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody

Musical biopics and stories about celebrity are such predictable genres that 2007’s parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was almost anticlimactic in its fusion of clichés. Almost anyone who has seen more than one film in these genres can trace their narrative arcs. They are typically cautionary tales that encourages us to root for underdogs and luxuriate in their stardom while admonishing us to be mindful of the dark forces endemic to celebrity. Few films in either genre transcend this push-pull narrative approach which usually makes performances their saving grace. Jamie Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles (Ray) and Jennifer Hudson’s as Effie White (Dreamgirls) are sterling examples of this phenomenon.


For some these films are a kind of cinematic comfort food; for others, they are frustratingly formulaic. The Bradley Cooper directed version of A Star is Born is the fourth version of a story told onscreen in 1937, 1954 and 1976. Because of this the test of its mettle is not necessarily plot but performance and tone. What is different in the 21st century that warrants another retelling? The Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has a different mission, notably to narrativize the life Freddie Mercury, one of rock’s most dynamic figures in a way that enriches our understanding of him as an individual and as the primary face of arena rock’s most eclectic band, Queen. They are both highly watchable films limited by the genres they represent and the modest aspirations of their directors. How do they fare? Check out my thoughts below:


 Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga make music together in 2018’s remake of  A Star is Born .

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga make music together in 2018’s remake of A Star is Born.

A Star is Born


Before the global film industry drew a wedge between mainstream and independent films, by demarcating the mainstream as a domain for teenagers (mostly) and more independent circuits for mature audiences (mostly), dramas of multiple varieties (e.g., romantic, melo, epic) were a staple in mainstream movies. Contemporarily, the lack of mainstream adult fare makes a film like A Star is Born standout. Conceptually, the film makes perfect Hollywood sense: Pair a successful pop singer, seeking to branch out artistically, with a talented actor, looking to gain credibility as a filmmaker, and you have not only a film but a mashup that has spawned a hit soundtrack, a celebrity power couple and juicy awards show fodder.


The story is skeletal: a grizzled, pill-popping, alcoholic rock veteran (Jackson Maine) stumbles onto a gifted singer/songwriter (Ally)who waitresses by day and performs by night. After seeing her do a might impressive Edith Piaf impression in a New York City drag bar he’s smitten. They click artistically, they bond emotionally and a magical concert duet, captured virally, thrusts her into the national spotlight. He supports her sudden ascent to major record label status but also feels overshadowed by it. As he deteriorates, he watches the star machine begin to taint her “authenticity” and confronts her about it. She persists and after he embarrasses her publicly in grand fashion, she motivates him to seek out the help he needs. But, its ultimately too late; her ascent signifies a changing of the guard that he cannot endure.


This is a performance driven film and in that it succeeds. Lady Gaga is believable as an independent hardscrabble singer accustomed to handling different kinds of men, ranging from her wannabe crooner father to her overbearing boss. Her singing is gorgeous throughout, even if some of the songs are not that memorable, and she is a fine sparring partner with Cooper. She is far less self-conscious and more natural than many of the pop singer-turned-actresses before her, including Madonna, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her deep roots as a chameleonic performer serve her well. Her transition from an unknown to a celebrity is convincing, as is her chemistry with Cooper. They achieve some genuine moments of intimacy, especially when they have time to share songs and express their craft.


Cooper is also at his best—he’s traditionally masculine, but also tender and sympathetic, even when his addictions and insecurities get the best of him. Timewise, the kind of pseudo country rock/arena rock he plays throughout the movie seems a few generations removed, even for an aging performer. I never quite bought the youth of his audience. But he sings and plays with enough conviction to not distract you, though at times he seems to channel Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.


As a film, the story ticks along smoothly and is highly watchable, if familiar. Cooper’s triumph as a director is knowing when to pause and when to move us through the action. His ability to let the audience witness the budding tension between himself and Gaga is refreshing in the age of CGI. The final third of the movie is episodic and predictable. Though it clearly is building toward a foreseeable ending its rhythm feels forced moving both too quickly to wrap things up and still seeming to drag out the inevitable.  As a director, Cooper chooses inference over heavy handedness, which helps make the ending tolerable. It is an appropriately big moment for Lady Gaga who nails the finale with finesse and conviction.


A Star is Born is one of the more ambitious mainstream films I have seen in years in terms of the emotional terrain it aspires to cover. It’s a love story, a comment on celebrity, a concert film, a family saga, and a cautionary tale, among others. The film cannot bear the weight of all of these in its two hour and 14-minute playing time and is limited by its conservative storyline and thematic obviousness.  It is a modest triumph of craft more than innovation. Despite all the obvious talent on display it never illuminates why this story needs to be retold.


 Rami Malek delivers a star-making performance as Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Queen biopic  Bohemian Rhapsody .

Rami Malek delivers a star-making performance as Freddie Mercury in the 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

Bohemian Rhapsody


The genius of Queen’s pseudo-operatic 1977 ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody” is its focused excess. Despite the over the top nature of everything associated with it—those voices! those lyrics! that falsetto! —there is a meticulous intricacy to each of its components making it epic yet intimate. The new biopic on Queen should have taken a cue from its namesake.


People seeking a through overview of Queen should read some of the better books about the band such as Mark Blake’s excellent 2011 biography Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen. A two-hour film is too modest a format to hint at the full grandeur of the band. As such, the filmmakers have made a hybrid that chronicles select moments in Freddie Mercury’s life, mixes it with highly staged scenes of the band creating their art and performing, and throws in moments aiming to expose the machinations of the commercial recording industry.


Bohemian Rhapsody’s main attraction is its platform for actor Rami Malek whose performance as Mercury is so indelible it’s difficult to imagine any other actor pulling it off. Malek captures the lithe, feline-like quality of Mercury onstage and off as someone who knew how to manage any situation with wit, style and attitude. Whether this is objectively true of Mercury is beside the point. The film’s evasions of certain facts never get in the way of Malek’s performance of the character the screenplay constructs. Much like Diana Ross’s celebrated performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Malek captures the emotional essence of a highly public musician, facts be damned. This is expert scenery chewing, conveyed with charm and conviction.


The film tries to cover so much about Queen’s rise from the early 1970s to mid-1980s period that you leave knowing you saw and heard a lot but emerge with no real insights. The way the film bounces through time, using montages, for example, sacrifices intimacy for an unsatisfying comprehensiveness. The band’s lead guitarist Brian May was involved with the production which may explain why the film attempts to convey the highly collaborative nature of the band as more than just a Freddie Mercury showcase. The screenplay still presents them flatly as likable journeymen who propelled Mercury’s vision. Their personalities and contributions remain elusive.


Further, the film delves into a lot of clichés about celebrity indulgence, through Mercury, but never explores his bandmates’ exploits including their dalliances with groupies and marital issues. He instead becomes the cautionary tale about the way money and fame are corrupting forces. Beyond his material possessions and drug use, the film treats his queer sexuality as a symptom of indulgence, even if unintentionally. Mercury was never “out” in traditional terms to his audience which was understandable given the demographics of arena rock. While the film presents his relationship to his longtime friend and companion Mary Austin respectfully, it never explores his own struggles with his sexuality or his navigation of the macho rock world. By presenting his sexuality through side glances, then showing his tentative effort to establish a relationship with Jim Hutton (who he lived with from the mid-1980s until his death), and then fast forwarding to his HIV diagnosis, the film cheats him of complexity. He becomes another victim with little exploration of what it was like for him, especially considering the cultural paranoia about HIV/AIDS at the time.


Had the film focused on the lesser known parts of the band’s storied (?) history we could have had a more intimate glance at an exciting manner of dynamics. Mercury’s navigations of the closet and his HIV positive status is one example. Another one: Mike Myers is delightfully cast as sleezy commercial minded record executive Ray Foster who focuses on what the radio will already play rather than trying to expand its parameters. Pop music’s transition from rigid formulas to more experimental sounds is an interesting phase of rock the film never explores, though Queen’s defiance of clichés would make it an ideal band for this type of exploration. Few rock-oriented bands of their time could cover as vast a range as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “We Will Rock You” and “I Want to Break Free.” Queen offers a different kind of listening pleasure than Styx or Kansas or The Moody Blues. Their uniqueness deserves a film of similar stature.



Aretha’s Rainbow: Notes on Aretha Franklin’s music beyond ‘soul’

The loss of a musical and cultural titan as mighty as Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942-August 18, 2018) naturally inspires critics, writers, bloggers, journalists and fans the opportunity to reflect on her legacy. I have listened to a wide range of Ms. Franklin’s music deeply over time and this month I discuss her remarkably underrated musical range and adaptability.


 The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

We have commonly known Aretha Franklin as “the Queen of Soul,” a recognition of her talents as the most influential singer in Rhythm & Blues (R&B). But her ascent to this role was not inevitable. She has always had the talent and drive to move in any musical direction of her choice. Franklin grew up the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin a prominent minister and civil rights activist. As a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid) Aretha’s exposure to gospel music was the outgrowth of being raised in a church environment, especially during a time when the church played an even more prominent role as a social and spiritual force in the lives of African-Americans. Her father regularly interacted with luminaries in the gospel world such as singer Clara Ward, who nurtured Aretha, so her emergence as a young gospel recording artist at the age of 14 is understandable.

In the 1950’s gospel music was far more segregated from secular music than it is today. Most popular black singers of Aretha’s youth, including jazz vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and R&B singers who preceded Franklin, such as Ray Charles and Etta James, began their musical training in a church environment. Many singers, such as Roy Hamilton, Sam Cooke, and Washington achieved commercial success on the gospel circuit, before deciding to make the leap to secular music and “cross over.” Crossing over was such a major issue that many of gospel’s most accomplished voices, including Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, always made it a point to note that they had opportunities to sing secular music but refused.


 Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin’s ambitions, however, went beyond the circuit. Signed by John Hammond to sing at Columbia Records, her stint from 1961-66 is represents her complicated musical identity. While gospel vocal techniques, including the selective use of bent notes, melisma and call-and-response type arrangements, deeply inform Franklin’s singing, her taste in material extends well beyond the secularized gospel material known as R&B songs to include blues and pre-rock pop music from Broadway and film. Though she conveys a vocal intensity and emotional vulnerability best understood as “soul” her Columbia recordings tell a fuller story of her musical interests.

Her 1961 Columbia debut album Aretha (in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo) featured original songs such as “Won’t Be Long” with a strong flavor recognizable to R&B fans, but she also interpreted “Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz) and “Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess). These interpretations are distinctly Aretha-fied but cannot simply be understood as “soul” or “R&B. Like many musicians of her generation she absorbed a wide range of influences and these are as essential to understanding her career as hits like “Respect” and “Think.”


 Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Columbia paired Franklin with many different arrangers and producers in search of commercial hits and this proved difficult. Franklin’s taste in material included a penchant for creatively reimagining tried and true standards (“Love for Sale”) and more contemporary (“If I Had a Hammer”) songs sung in jazz settings such as the superb jazz set Yeah!!! which could have made her the outstanding jazz vocalist of her generation. But she also enjoyed singing dated “showbiz” songs including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” made famous by Al Jolson in 1918 (!), and a flashy version of the pop warhorse “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” These kinds of songs, combined with period era touches such as strings and background choirs, found her at odds with changes occurring in popular music in the mid-1960s. This includes the transition of rock ‘n’ roll from dance-oriented music to more serious and sophisticated “rock,” the growth of R&B into “soul,” and newer variants in jazz such as “soul jazz” and the avant-garde.


 Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Stuck in a commercial rut, she had not found consistent success in the pop, jazz and cabaret vein of Columbia and overtly sought a label that could help her secure hits on the radio and the record charts. At Columbia Records, she had 12 top 100 singles, with only one, the rather unfortunate “Rock-A-Bye,” hitting the pop top 40. Considering the social and racial segregation of the 1960’s she was more popular on the “black” singles charts where she had 8 top 40 songs though few were major hits. Atlantic Records, under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler, helped Franklin realize her ambitions by providing more leeway to select songs, paly piano and arrange her material. From 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” onward she grew into a creative and commercial acme that went until about 1974. Had her career been assessed by the first singles she released from 1967-68, which includes (in order): “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby)Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think,” she would have had the greatest streak of winners of any singer of her time. What’s so amazing is that she continued to produce more classics, on an almost routine casual basis, including her versions of “I Say a Little Prayer,” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971) and original compositions such as like “Call Me” (1970) and “Daydreaming” (1972).

 Though the late 1960’s-early 1970’s is Franklin’s prime “classic” period this does not mean everything she recorded was classic. Franklin became an artist before albums were assembled as meticulously as they eventually became in the late 1960’s era of rock “concept” albums. Essentially her albums were compilations of potential singles and whatever was recorded recently. This shifted with 1969’s more conceptual big band jazz set Soul ’69 and on the gospel extravaganza 1972’s Amazing Grace. I mention this because even as her albums became more uneven in the early 1970’s there was still at least a handful of classic individual performances which is more than could be said for most artists. No matter how uneven an album, such as 1974’s Let Me in your Life, might be there was a classic performance like “Until you Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” that reminded you why she stirred so much excitement in 1967. Except for 1976’s Sparkle soundtrack the mid-to-late 1970’s was a commercial nadir as Franklin searched for suitable material to apply her naturally potent voice, a search complicated by the expanding strands of black pop which included quiet storm, funk, disco and Philly Soul.


 1985's  Who's Zoomin' Who?  was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

Searching once again for “hits” Franklin took a cue from Dionne Warwick’s success at Arista Records and signed with the label. Many critics have noted how this era pales with her classic period. I respond to this in two ways. First, any artist’s peak would pale in comparison with Franklin’s late 1960s-early 1970’s hot streak. At Atlantic she as able to synthesize nearly all her disparate influences and interests into a cohesive style that was rooted in gospel but drew from a panoply of American music strands. Second, like most major artists Franklin faced a generation gap and major industrial and technological changes in the music industry. Franklin was 25 when “Respect” became a hit and nearly 40 when she had her first Arista “hit,” the ballad “United Together.” Franklin was not going to revert to the jazz and pop she began with as much of this material had been interpreted continually by a wide variety of singers since the 1910’s and she was interested in authoring new hits. Further, she was entering into an industry more defined by electric production technologies (e.g. synthesizers), personalized audio delivery systems (e.g. Walkman’s) and promotional outlets such as MTV, as well as a narrowing of radio programming menus.

In this more codified and demographically focused market Franklin made a noble effort to employ her still rich voice and sharp pop instincts to remain a vital pop figure. For someone of my vintage (ahem, mid-1970’s) I knew songs like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” as they were too iconic (and played on oldie stations) to not know, much like “Unchained Melody” or “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” I also experienced Franklin’s performances of 1982’s “Jump to It,” 1983’s “Get it Right” and the monstrous 1985 radio and MTV hit “Freeway of Love.” As a young listener, I was both aware of Franklin as a revered singer with a rich past and as a contemporary artist whose hits such as “Freeway,” “Sisters Are Doing It Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” were as good as pop got in the mid-1980’s. This was new music and it was commercially viable and genuinely exciting. Sustaining the commercial success of these hits eventually became harder as Franklin’s fusion of gospel technique and sleek modern production styles competed with hip-hop, New Jack swing, modern rock, and other emerging styles. The quality of material she recorded for Arista from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s finds her locating ways to adapt her sound to the times. Sometimes this resulted in a sublime fusion, such as 1994’s “Honey” and 1998’s “A Rose is Still a Rose,” and sometimes it resulted in her “oversouling” on slight material or straining too hard to sound “hip.”


 1998's  A Rose is Still a Rose  was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

1998's A Rose is Still a Rose was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

Franklin’s efforts to remain current has inspired controversy among many musicians and critics. For example, several of her past producers such as Wexler and arranger Clyde Otis, wanted her to skip the contemporary pop music scene and focus on being a jazz-oriented singer. Yet Franklin has never felt like a singer seeking to be confined to one style. She took risks “crossing over” from gospel to secular music and transitioning from the jazzy pop style of the 1960’s to the more overt “soul” approach of the late 1960’s.  Most musical artists are lucky to excel in one style and she found a credible voice in multiple styles and eras. As such, her missteps must be considered in the context of their creation and the transitory nature of pop music.


While many of her peers may have been associated with a defined time in the past and lauded for their endurance, she strived to achieve ongoing relevance. A talent like hers transcends charts, sales and awards. Her spectacular performances at the 1997 VH1 Divas Live concert, at the 1998 Grammys singing “Nessun Dorma” and stopping the show with “A Natural Woman” performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, attest to a highly cultivated musicality and showmanship. Though many singers think “soul” is only about raw emotion Franklin has deep roots that helped her balance the emotional and technical needs of her material. Her versatility, improvisational skill, musical technique and sheer heart are uniquely her own.


Please enjoy these two playlists I compiled via Spotify:





The stories behind the art: Notes on Pose

27 years ago, filmmaker Jeannie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning propelled New York’s drag ball scene from a clandestine pleasure for those in the know to a feast for broader public consumption. In addition to winning acclaim for Livingston, the film garnered attention from journalists and academics who looked toward the scene as a hip trend warranting analysis. Overlapping the film was Madonna’s hit “Vogue” (video and song) a commercialized take on the intricate choreography of the scene tailored for MTV and top 40 radio.


 FX's summer series  Pose  offers a radical representation of Black and Latinx trans and queer lives.

FX's summer series Pose offers a radical representation of Black and Latinx trans and queer lives.

Though audiences in the Americas have long enjoyed watching the bodies of Black and Latinx male entertainers in motion, the queer context of the ball culture, notably the danger of being openly queer and the alternative family offered by ball houses, was central. The abject economic circumstances for most ball participants was a visible yet strangely underdeveloped aspect of Paris. These deficiencies coupled with a lack of analysis toward many of the men’s (mostly) unironic aspirations to secure the social stability of white affluence did not go unnoticed. Cultural critic bell hooks’s 1992 essay “Is Paris Burning?” (in Black Looks: Race and Representation) was one of the more incisive critiques of the film’s limitations, many of which I share.

Though many gender theorists and performance studies folks rightfully lauded the brilliant performativity of the ball culture. And were astute in their praise for the highly cultivated parodic elements embodied in the aesthetic of “realness” the larger dangers of poverty, violence, disease and self-loathing in the film have always stuck with me long beyond quaint academic observations, however thoughtful they might be.

In 2006, German filmmaker Wolfgang Busch’s documentary How Do I Look, further documented the New York and Philadelphia ball scenes, including several performers from Paris. Whereas the performers in Paris often emulated tropes of style drawn from the very white worlds of Dynasty and Ralph Lauren commercials, Look showed something else. Notably, the scene matured from the mix of irony, envy and aspiration integral to Paris to a more independent and eclectic set of influences. The performances in Look are no less stunning than Paris, and more importantly, reflected an embrace of Black and Latinx urban aesthetics. Though the desire for mainstream acceptance, wealth and fame endure in the American psyche, one gets the sense that the scene’s participants shifted from pressing their fingertips against the sleek windows of Bloomingdales to get a glimpse of nice but unattainable objects to opening their own store. A more innovative and internal cultural sense of expression emerges in the film.

In this sense the summer 2018 FX series Pose offers a kind of narrative correction to some of Paris’s flaws while hinting toward the future documented in Look. Set in New York circa 1987, the series mixes melodrama, performance film, and elements of dramatic realism to thrust its audience in the center of the scene. While there are plenty of delightfully over the top costumes and dazzling choreography at the ball scenes, it’s the richness beyond the red walls of the runway that give the series its bite.

The series creators provide a firsthand look at how a family’s disapproval and violent rejection of their effeminate son Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) who loves to dance leads him to homelessness in the streets of New York, before the generous new house mother Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) takes him in and helps him get an education. The series also depicts the susceptibility of queer young people to selling drugs and engaging in various forms of sex work including prostitution and dancing for peep shows. Though the depictions are a bit sanitized and viewers are mostly sheltered from some of the seedier elements of these activities (at least, thus far) there is a refreshing attempt to provide a fuller context.

 Actress Mj Rodriguez is one of several trans performers cast as central characters on  Pose .

Actress Mj Rodriguez is one of several trans performers cast as central characters on Pose.

The HIV/AIDS crisis, including anxieties about testing, medical discrimination toward patients and the toll of watching one’s generation perish from the virus impacts multiple characters profoundly. Another notable element is the show’s critique of different forms of normalcy. Though several characters embody the aspirational element of Paris’s interviewees the characters have multiple scenes where they acknowledge white privilege, racism and transphobia including several protestant scenes in a tony white gay bar, and a surprising exchange between a central character and a white lover. The fragility of the nouveau riche life for several white characters with working class backgrounds, and the predilection of closeted wealthy men for queer erotic exoticism is also depicted gamely. The show has a liminal element that acknowledges the pervasive desire for mainstream acceptance balanced with an appreciation of the structures, mores and cultural scenes the characters have created for themselves.

Pose has been renewed for a second season which should provide more opportunities to refine and develop the series. For example, there is a range of acting experience on display ranging from some stiff interpretations of dialogue to the virtuoso talents of Tony-winning actor Billy Porter (as Pray Tell) whose MCing of the balls is hilariously shady and whose offstage navigations of various life challenges are a marvel. There are many touches of TV movie style melodrama that result in some awkward dialogue and a few too many plot contrivances.   

The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television.  

Still, Pose is easily one of scripted television’s most promising debuts. The series is a complex mosaic of characters and subplots. It goes beyond novelty and humanizes the characters beyond the ballroom floor. The notion that Black and Latinx queer and transpeople matter remains a radical idea in the U.S. and on television.  The casting of trans actresses Rodriguez, Indya Moore (Angel) and Dominique Jackson (Elektra) as lead characters is a milestone for the series as is the involvement of trans directors and writers, such as Janet Mock. These impactful behind-the scenes decisions, and the series’ narrative choices place the balls in context and amplify your ability to understand why the balls matter and to embrace their creativity. Fans of ‘80’s fashion will revel in some of the brilliant choreography and costuming showcased in the ball scenes, as will fans of ‘80s dance pop and R&B (Check out this Spotify playlist: Viewers will be entertained and enlightened, and most importantly compelled to value fuller representations of people whose lives have been obscured for too long.





Me, you and Mariah: A re-introduction of sorts

I resented her at first. Like many people listening to pop radio in the summer of 1990, I recall the soaring notes, the skillful gospel inflections, and soaring chorus of “Vision of Love.” The talent on display was undeniable. Yet, after growing up with the mellifluous tones of Whitney Houston did we really need Whitney II?

Many a diva had tried, and mostly failed, to imitate the power and technique Houston wielded and I was unwilling to relent. Further, there was the matter of race. Though Whitney received a lot of criticism from black people for “sounding White” and “lacking soul” we were proud of her achievements. She was not just the ultimate black diva of the era—she was the ultimate diva, period. She crossed over in a way no black female pop singer (even Diana Ross and Donna Summer!) had done before her, and I (we) felt very protective of her legacy.

MC vision single.jpg

Gradually, the details about this new diva Mariah emerged. Though Columbia Records marketed her as a pop artist, and was thus tacitly “white,” she was biracial actually. She had a white mother and an Afro-Venezuelan father and honed her talent listening to Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, the Clark Sisters and other legends mostly associated with African-American music. She was also open about her black, and white, cultural roots with an emphasis on the black musical influences.

Though she was open about her heritage, as a white-appearing singer she was still “suspicious” to some listeners and critics. She had more immediate pop access than many more phenotypically black singers, and as a Columbia Records artist she certainly had more marketing muscle behind her than a lot of other talented soul divas. Regina Belle, a black vocalist signed to Columbia had not really crossed over to the pop audience by 1990. Mikki Howard was still primarily known to the black R&B audience. Veteran divas like Randy Crawford and Phyllis Hyman, who began recording in the mid-1970's, were still striving for greater recognition. Who was this new voice and why was she so special?

For me, these questions remained present, but became less relevant as I continued listening. After “Vision” came lovelorn ballads such as “Love Takes Time” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and the sassy dance tune “Someday.” By 1991, Mariah was the most successful female singer in pop. She won two awards at the 1991 Grammy's, beating out Houston, Bette Midler, Sinead O’Connor, and Lisa Stansfield for Female Pop Vocal Performance, and was a commercial phenomenon. The moment that solidified my interested were her almost ridiculous coloratura notes at the outro of her 1991 dance-pop hit “Emotions” the lead single from her new album Emotions. I had never heard any pop singer reach those heights technically, and on an emotional level, there was something about her exuberance and passion, and virtuosity, that spoke to my 15-year-old ears.  More hits from the album followed, and though I did not watch her 1992 MTV Unplugged episode when it first aired, she and Trey Lorenz’s soulful remake of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” mightily impressed me. To re-record such a classic and balance respect for the original with a personal flair was hard to pull off and they did it. My understanding is that even Michael Jackson was a fan.

Emotions single cover.jpg

As high school was ending I began developing other musical affinities including savoring new voices like the sultry tones of balladeer Toni Braxton and the modern girl groups Xscape, Jade, and SWV, whose debut I listened to incessantly on my black cassette player. Still, Carey’s voice always hovered somewhere in the background. My brother lent me his copy of Music Box, which had songs like the fluffy confection “Dreamlover” and the “inspirational” songs like “Hero” and “Anytime You Need a Friend.” If the lyrical themes were too literal, the singing and arrangements were gorgeous. Theoretically, based on demographics, I was supposed to be enjoying Tupac Shakur or Nirvana, but Mariah compelled me more. I remember combing the liner notes and being impressed by her level of creative control. Not only was she the singer, but also a writer, arranger, and producer. This seemed so different from what I remembered about other singers like Houston, Braxton, and Celine Dion. 

The summer before leaving for college, I interned at the local daily newspaper and saved my money well. Within my first semester at Emerson College, I had spent hundreds of dollars on cassettes tapes of the pop music I loved from childhood including Houston, Carey, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Taylor Dayne, etc. I shopped mostly at Tower Records, but when my money ran low, I went to great used record stores in Boston, like Mystery Train and Newbury Comics. I was doing my own music education and Carey was part of my curriculum. That winter she released Merry Christmas, whose lead single “All I Want for Christmas is You,” I adored. It was one of the few seasonal songs I could stand to listen to beyond the season. My college friends, many of whom liked more outré music, seemed puzzled by my adoration. When you were in college in the mid-1990s you were supposed to like edgier, darker, more ironic music, but I was adamant that Carey was special. Even when she was obvious, or overwrought, I still forgave her.

In summer 1995, I returned to the internship and continued spending my salary disproportionately on music. I finally bought the MTV Unplugged EP. As impressive as the Jackson 5 cover was, I was impressed by her lean live arrangement of her live version of “Emotions” and transported by the way she and her background singers soared on the Carey and Carole King written soul ballad “If it’s Over.” The audience, whoever they were, applauded righteously. A few months after this purchase, Carey released “Fantasy” in a pop version and a remix featuring rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard (O.D.B). It was the second song to debut at #1 on the singles chart (after Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”) and signified something new for Carey. After five years of wholesomeness, there was something funkier and even a bit trashy about the juxtaposition of Carey with O.D.B. I bought 1995’s Daydream the night of its release from Tower and could not wait to run to my dorm room and listen to it, as well as review the liner notes. Shortly after, I reviewed Daydream very positively for the college paper The Berkeley Beacon. I also noticed other reviews, such as Time magazine’s Christopher John Farley noticing something younger, sexier, and more interesting about Carey.

Mc if its over.jpg

Daydream was an artistic and commercial apex for Carey spawning three number one hits, earning her multiple awards and nominations, including six Grammy nods, and even a spot on a few year-end Best-Of lists. After five years, she was finally earning the critical respect I felt she deserved. I also felt vindicated in my tastes; even people who loathed pop, and Carey specifically, warmed up to songs like “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby.”

1997 began my scholarly interest in Carey. Right before departing Boston for graduate school in Ohio in late August 1997 news emerged that she and her husband, Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, were separating and her forthcoming album Butterfly was the first product of her newfound freedom. Carey, who always seemed upbeat and inaccessible, suddenly seemed more human and vulnerable than ever. Though she led with the hip-hop inflected single “Honey,” promoted via an escapist video of Carey escaping to an island, dancing with a group of sailors, and jumping into the arms of another man at its conclusion, the album was not exactly hip-hop. Mostly she used the ballad form, her greatest strength, to reflect on her childhood (“Close My Eyes”), racial insecurity (“Outside”), and heartache (“Whenever You Call”), co-written with her collaborator Walter Afanasieff. She also managed to blend her style with younger artists including the brilliant “Breakdown” recording with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the taut “Babydoll” co-written with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. Though the album featured hip-hop associated personnel, the album is mostly downbeat. Lyrically, it is also richer in detail and the songs flow into each other with far more deliberateness than her typically singles-oriented albums. There are some meandering melodies, and at times, she barely enunciates, but it feels like her most personal work yet.

I wrote about Carey’s gospel influences in a music course I was taking and built from this blueprint by presenting papers on her music at academic conferences. I decided Carey’s life warranted deeper exploration and made her the focus of my Master’s thesis.  I collected a formidable archive of articles and images, watched her commercially released videos, and became a Carey “expert.” I was simultaneously meditating on the political economy of popular music. She was the rare female pop figure to possess such high levels of creative control. And as a biracial performer she was in an odd position: Though she was marketed as a pop singer with a soulful sound that could appeal to fans of black pop, she had fought with Columbia about integrating more hip-hop into her music and was defeated. That is, until she had earned enough commercial clout to do so; and this apparent “gamble” paid off.  She was a racially ambiguous singer typically read as “white,” who gradually integrated blacker urban influences into her music, as pop music itself was becoming more influenced by hip-hop. Though Mary J. Blige is understood as the queen of hip-hop soul, “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby” blended hip-hop, R&B and pop in a quietly transformative way. After Carey’s success in this style Houston embraced it on 1998’s My Love is Your Love, and even Celine Dion started adding R&B touches to her albums.  

Since the late 1990s, Carey’s influence on other singers has grown more apparent (e.g., Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, Jessica Simpson) but her struggle to remain relevant has also emerged. Butterfly debuted at number one and had two number one hits but was not the colossal success of her previous albums in sales or in airplay. 1999’s Rainbow just missed the number one pop albums spot, and though she had two big pop/R&B hits from it the set was also perceived as a downturn in sales.  Her experience is similar to other female pop singers who regularly enjoyed robust sales and airplay in the 1990's such as Janet Jackson. In the 2000's Carey struggled personally and professionally to uphold her previous image. Midway through the decade she had a “comeback” with 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi, but has struggled to maintain its momentum as she has matured and as the record industry has adapted to the digital revolution, changing demographics, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores and competing forms of media influence.

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Carey emerged in the midst of “big pop” a period when pop stars regularly sold multiplatinum albums that spawned multiple singles, mostly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. This was the era of mega-selling albums such as Thriller, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Purple Rain, She’s So Unusual, Whitney Houston, No Jacket Required, and Faith. She filled a void on Columbia’s roster and provided the label with a reliable commercial anchor who could compete with Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Madonna and other chart-makers of the early 1990s. She proved herself to be musically adept across age, format and taste cultures during several transitions in pop music. As a relatively self-contained musician, typically in tune with musical trends, her instincts served her well for over a decade. After over 25 years of recording, she has had to confront the artistic quandary for big pop stars:  Their talents gave them an audience, but as audiences shrink and tastes change, they have to figure out how, and if, their talents can keep them in the spotlight. The alternatives are to try to adapt to changing tastes and/or to relinquish the spotlight and simply make the music they want to make rather than competing with contemporary pop.

Pop fame is a remarkably addictive temptation. Legendary performers like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald Peggy Lee, and Sarah Vaughan all had fallow periods when they tried to stay current. Their natural abilities often clashed with attempts to cover rock material and they eventually returned to the kind of music that made them famous. 

Carey has to figure out how viable she is for present and future audiences.  As a listener I distinguish her career from more traditional divas like Houston and Dion who have always depended more on outside material and producer/executives’ instincts to shape their sounds. She also differs from singers like Jackson and Madonna whose careers depend more heavily on their personae and performing abilities than vocal precision.  Arguably, two promising approaches that continue to constrain her are ambition and risk. First, though pop is full of pretentious “art rock” and “concept albums” that go nowhere, I rarely sense Carey developing her albums conceptually. Beyond writing well-crafted love songs and scoring hits, it is not clear if she is thinking on the conceptual plane that musicians as varied as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Terence Trent D’Arby, Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Joni Mitchell, U2, or Stevie Wonder have employed. She seems capable to this listener but I am not sure if she believes it.

Second, Carey might benefit from looking at the payoffs for some of pop music’s risk takers. A few examples:

·         After six years of albums featuring orchestras and show tunes Barbra Streisand made peace with modern pop on 1971’s Stoney End and Barbra Joan Streisand adding Carole King, John Lennon, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson to her repertoire alongside of Harold Arlen and Jules Styne. Though she is not a rock singer by any stretch, she modernized her sound finding some folk-pop, R&B, and soft rock that gelled with her sound. She mostly maintained her audience and gained new ones.

·         Donna Summer quickly became the “Queen of Disco” around 1976, and she gradually grew beyond its confines adding conceptual dimensions, and other stylistic influences that peaked on 1979’s Bad Girls. But her finest album was actually 1980’s The Wanderer, a moderately popular but thoroughly accomplished album with touches of rock, new wave, pop, and even gospel that redefined her sound and career for the 1980s.

·         Linda Ronstadt completely upended her image in the 1980s by performing in Pirates of Penzance and La Boheme in New York, recording three standards albums with Nelson Riddle and recording what eventually became a trilogy of Spanish language albums. Though her record label was highly reluctant, she had earned the audience and profits to more than justify these experiments, which ultimately transformed her singing. 1987’s Trio and 1989’s Cry Like a Rainstorm illustrated her enduring commercial appeal even after seemingly abandoning mainstream pop.

·         Madonna had a succession of hit albums and singles from 1983 forward and from these successes came 1989’s Like a Prayer. Though it is clearly aiming for “seriousness” her conceptual reach indicated greater artistic ambitions than being an MTV provocateur. The album’s genuine explorations of religion, sexuality, and family propelled her from an entertainer to an artist and afforded her newfound critical respect without diminishing her commercial appeal.


As odd as it seems to reference albums recorded from 1971-89 this is part of my larger point: Pop musicians of Carey’s generation rarely deviate from established formulas. Daydream was definitely a progression in its blend of hip-hop elements with pop/soul, and Butterfly was even more experimental in many respects. But, there is an element of daring missing from Carey’s repertoire that would help her grow artistically and enrich her critical stature. Whether audiences will follow is less relevant than her potential to lead.

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To enjoy listening to someone like Mariah Carey is a kind of badge of vulgarity, right?

She seems so obvious, so commercial, so pop, so excessive, so shameless, so over-the-top, so obsessive, so slick. Respectable people are not supposed to take pop divas like Carey (and forebears like Whitney Houston, or followers like Kelly Clarkson) “seriously.” Carl Wilson’s brilliant 2007 book on Celine Dion (reprinted and expanded in 2014) Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste is one of the best analyses of this subject of musical taste.

In rock and pop critical circles, “Serious” is a term reserved for male singer-songwriters in rock, soul, hip-hop and certain subgenres of country. “Serious” is mostly for music that is not “pop” except when it is. The critical community champions rock and roll for its cultural revolution of bringing black influenced culture to the mainstream. Yet, up until the 2000's, the demographics of rock criticism were incredibly homogeneous and conservative. Few non-white males had the opportunity to gain the national prominence or critical respect of Robert Christgau, Anthony DeCurtis, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh to name a few rock critic superstars.

As such, rock criticism’s’ insularity has narrowed the discourse of the aesthetic expressions respectable in mainstream popular music. Rockers, country outlaws, gritty soul men and hip-hop are OK. Women can also enter this club as long as they adhere to these archetypes. When critics accord female pop singer respect, they often write in tones of shock and condescension. Who knew she could do that.

Women who are angry and gritty are admitted to the canon, but other kinds of expression—vulnerability, optimism, ambivalence, buoyancy, sensuality—are harder to trace in the language of pop/rock criticism. The easiest way to address “pop” is to dismiss it as ephemeral drivel. Kelefan Sanneh has addressed this in her 2004 critique of Rockism in the New York Times, and it bears repeating (“The Rap Against Rockism,” New York Times, October 31, 2004, Sec. 2, pp. 1, 32). I disagree with the Rockist perspective on pop, and I have devoted much of my previous writing exploring the kinds of singers and genres critics often dismiss as light, trivial, and irrelevant to notions of “art.” Within this, I have located reservoirs of artistic richness and depth easy to dismiss if you are never encouraged to look.

Among these overlooked figures, Carey fascinates me because her vocal palette, range of skills, and facility with synthesizing influences is highly unusual in the pop world. My observations may sometimes seem defensive or even feature moments of appreciation, but my reading is not a defense or an appraisal. I am raising the question of why it might be useful to examine Carey critically, for I have seen little that convinces me that she is unworthy of study. I will state upfront that she is not conceptual in the vein of a pop artist like Madonna, nor is she renowned as a “performer” in the vein of singer-dance-performer extraordinaire Michael Jackson, to name two pop figures frequently subject to cultural criticism. Some of her contemporaries, notably Mary J. Blige, have stronger “personae” than she has ever mustered. Regardless, I still find her compelling; I always want to know what she it up to presently and next.

Buried within her discography are hundreds of special moments that set her apart. Her 2003 double-disc Remixes is as important to understanding her as her Greatest Hits collection. Her singles and her albums (in the digital era) regularly feature bonus cuts that include unreleased songs or interesting remixes that suggest all kinds of artistic frequencies beyond what you might hear on the radio or watch on a video channel. In the 1990's, she may have seemed like the most conventional, middle-of-the road (MOR) formulaic pop diva, but she was actually a champagne cork ready to be released. Things slowly seeped out on 1995’s Daydream, a pivotal recording where she began to split from MOR goddess to a more modern and believable singer. She aged backwards, embraced hipper styles and grew more sensuous abandoning the kind of wholesomeness that made her songs anthems of beauty pageants, proms and weddings.

Despite the misbegotten notion that she suddenly became “black” when she thought it would sell more records there are few pop singers of her generation more influenced by classic “black” American musical styles—especially gospel and jazz. At her best, her melismatic control, fluid phrasing, call and response arrangements and instrumental choices brilliantly signify to her musical predecessors. Within these, she has also integrated traces of hip-hop seamlessly. The little scat passages in “Dreamlover” and on the dance remix of “Anytime You Need a Friend” hint at vocal prowess yet unleashed. Her background vocal arrangements on songs like “Vision of Love,” “If It’s Over,” “Jesus (Oh What a Wonderful Child),” “I Am Free,” “Outside,” and “Fly Like a Bird” could easily make her a stellar full-time gospel arranger.

Carey’s challenge is the “hint” element. The raw talent is there and when it comes together, it is as brilliant and accomplished as any contemporary post 1980's popular music. Her struggle to pull it all together consistently is part of the appeal. She has accumulated an abundance of micro level ambitions that surface in fragments and patches, rather than the whole we favor in the albums era. I am faithful/hopeful her records have suggested what she can do but that more is to come.

From 2001-2004 she risked becoming a 1990's relic; then in 2005 she turned things around with The Emancipation of Mimi. 2008’s E=MC2 was less impactful though it spawned the requisite big hit (“Touch My Body”) and debuted at #1. Too bad, because in many ways it is a more idiosyncratic and distinctly personal album. If Emancipation re-established Carey as a commercial force in the digital era, E=MC2 allowed her more personal freedom. Rocker Ryan Adams had a very revealing interview that spoke to the odd frequencies she was operating in.

According to Adams, “I feel like Mariah is loosening up, finding herself again. This is a woman who makes amazing albums. She got panned for Glitter, but she was just taking a stab at her 8 Mile, Purple Rain and Xanadu. With The Emancipation of Mimi she figured out how to dig back into songs and jams and not overdo it vocally. Her pride probably got hurt, she had something to prove, she went nah, watch this, I’m going to emancipate myself — and the record demonstrated this. E=MC2 (Island) is a very sexy, cool record. She’s funny, the beats are great, a lot of slow jams. She’s not a pop star; she writes her own stuff, and she really collaborates. Her sampling ideas are well informed; she’s very involved in her recording process. Her records are masterpieces” (“A Dash of Metal and A Whole Lot of Mainstream,” New York Times, October 26, 2008, AR29).

 Though Carey does not need Adams to affirm her, he is a restless eclectic in the manner of Elvis Costello, who has certainly soaked up a lot of pop music in his day. Similarly, Ben Folds, wrote, “She’s got the most amazing voice. Although the production on her new album, The Emancipation of Mimi (Island), may turn some off, I find the sheer talent involved reason enough to listen. I love classic soul ballads like “Mine Again” and “Fly Like a Bird.”' I also like that she's using her voice on this album more like a male singer might, like Prince. She could show off and belt but she’s evolving and doesn’t seem to need to prove herself every bar, so you get the Interpretation of an amazing singer” (“Arty, Twangy and Carey,” New York Times, May 8, 2005, p. A17). 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel is even weirder—there are traces of humor, regional slang, and allusions that defy the stereotype of Carey as a pop-soul simpleton. Her most recent studio album, 2014’s wildly eclectic Me. I Am Mariah. The Elusive Chanteuse, was not a big hit, but it also unpeeled some musical and personal layers.

I share all of this because I am working toward a book of cultural criticism on Carey. My interest in exploring Carey’s career as a book project is not to redeem, condemn, preserve or other finite functions, but to illuminate tones and layers people are not hearing. Her racial and ethnic identity, her relationship to different musical genres, the media’s framing of Carey’s professional relationships with men and women, and other related themes, are areas I am excited to explore. I hope this preview leads you to reconsider the familiar.




Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 3)

1986-present: Repertory singer

 Mathis has focused on songbook style albums for the last 30 years with rare exception. From movie songs to Duke Ellington to 2010 era hits by Pharrell Williams, he continues to mine the riches of multiple eras and styles.

 **=Highly recommended albums!

 Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

Mathis has dedicated the majority of his albums from the late 1980's-present to exploring genres including doo-wop, jazz, country music, and contemporary pop.

**#51: The Hollywood Musicals (with Henry Mancini)(1986): Though it is easy to frame Mathis as the king of ‘50s “makeout” music and dismiss his romantic crooning, the reality is that no one does dreamy, ethereal classic pop with the same flair and enthusiasm. Though rock critics rarely take this kind of music (e.g., film songs) seriously, the kinds of ballads composers like Vernon Duke, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Jerome Kern authored are a major touchstone in American popular music that continues to resonate. Partnering with the simpatico arrangements of Henry Mancini, with occasional choral backing, Mathis is completely in his element. His incredible vocal range combined with his interpretive persona as an eternally wide-eyed romantic gives new life to tunes like “When You wish Upon a Star,” and “It Might As Well Be Spring.” Mancini’s lush arrangements are surefooted, framing Mathis’s voice with the ideal level of cushioning for his voice to soar. A real triumph of taste and imagination.

 **#53: Once in a While: (1988): Once you get past the very ‘80’s glossy keyboards, you will emerge impressed. Mathis sounds fabulous on an impressively varied group of songs from the Great American Songbook (“Once in a While”), ‘50’s pop (“I’m on the Outside Looking In”), Motown (“Ain’t No Woman [Like the One I’ve Got]”), and singer-songwriters Todd Rundgren (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”) and Lauren Wood (“Fallen”) set to more contemporary rhythms. Astute at delivering the melodies and lyrics, Mathis sounds comfortably contemporary. 

**#54: In The Still of the Night (1989): ‘50s nostalgia was big in the 1980’s so it seems obvious for Mathis to take a stab at it on this sweet and smooth tribute to '50's doo-wop, pre-rock pop, and early ‘60s pop. Because Mathis was at his vocal prime when many of these songs became hits, his approach feels informed by genuine enthusiasm for the songs and the artists rather than nostalgia.  His producers blend acoustic instruments with '80's electronics to contemporize songs made famous by Jo Stafford (“You Belong to Me”), Brenda Lee (“All Alone I Am”), The Skyliners (“Since I Don’t Have You”), Ed Townsend (“For Your Love”), and even Buddy Holly (“True Love Ways”[!]). The result is a delightful confection, including two songs recorded with the vocal group Take 6.

**#56: In a Sentimental Mood: Mathis Sings Ellington (1990): One of Mathis’s most impressive vocal performances finds him focusing on the compositions of Duke Ellington, including songs by Billy Strayhorn (“Lush Life”) and Juan Tizol (“Perdido”) that were associated with his band. Though there are jazz soloists including pianist Fred Hersch, this is a ballad focused set with a few mid-tempo songs. Mathis’s voice is rich and clear throughout, and his performances are elegant and emotionally astute. This album was among the first nominated for the Grammy in the new Traditional Pop Vocal Performance category in 1991.

 **#57: Better Together: The Duet Album (1991): Mathis is great on his own, but he definitely plays well with others. This unique compilation features eight duets from his various albums plus new duets with Patti Austin and Regina Belle, and a duet with Dionne Warwick on a song from the then unreleased album The Island.

#58: How Do You Keep the Music Playing? The Songs of Michel Legrand and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (1993): Mathis, the romantic ballads of the Bergman-Legrands, and soaring strings are a logical match. Mathis actually recorded several of these songs in the late 60’s/early 70’s when they were new including, “What are you doing the rest of your life?” and “The Windmills of Your Mind.” That may be why it feels a bit anticlimactic. Most of the songs are well-worn, and aside from some jazzy piano playing and solid solos, trumpet and saxophone, nothing here is truly surprising musically. A lovely set of performances, but the familiarity of the material diminishes its impact.

#59: All About Love (1996): The one divergence from the repertory approach is this stab at mid-1990’s adult contemporary pop/soul. Aside from Stephen Bishop’s “One More Night” none of these songs are especially well-known. The production is smooth and Mathis is poised but nothing stands out.

#60: Because You Loved Me: Songs of Diane Warren (1998): In a return to his 1970’s approach, Mathis goes for covers of new-ish tunes here. Diane Warren’s sentimental ballads (“Look Away,” “Because You Loved Me,” “Un-break My Heart”) and peppy up-tempo songs (“Rhythm of the Night” Live for Loving You”) made her a staple of pop radio from the mid-1980’s through the late 1990s. Her songs are highly melodic, and feature undeniable hooks; but many music critics find her lyrics generic and dismiss her songs as L.A. pop hackwork. Undoubtedly, the commercial success of Michael Bolton, Toni Braxton, Peabo Bryson, Taylor Dayne, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and others, drew Mathis to one of the songs of one of last bastions of sentimental romantic pop. Mathis is in great voice, but the songs vary in quality, and there’s a generic quality to the slick arrangements and repetitive background vocals that makes it blend into the background rather than standout.

**#61: Mathis on Broadway (2000): 40 years after releasing two sets of songs from the Great White Way, not to mention an enduring penchant for Broadway fare, Mathis focuses on 10 songs from musicals of the late 1980's-mid 1990's including Into the Woods, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Rent. He, and duet partners Betty Buckley and Nell Carter each featured on one cut apiece, sound glorious.  

**#63: Isn’t It Romantic: The Standards Album (2005): Released during a resurgence of “standards” albums by rock singers such as Rod Stewart, Cyndi Lauper and Boz Scaggs, Mathis outshines them all. He is at his best here, soaring on a jaunty on “Day By Day” and delivering lovely renditions of classics like “Our Love is Here to Stay.” “Rainbow Connection” and “There’s a Kind of a Hush” are debatable “classics” but Mathis delivers warm, assured performances. 

 **#64: A Night to Remember (2008): This is a highly enjoyable cover album of “soft soul” material from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80's ranging from Bacharach and David’s “Walk On By” to DeBarge’s “All This Love.”  Though hardly an advance of Mathis’s firmly cemented style, it reminds listeners of his ability to apply his core sound to a range of contemporary ballads across multiple decades, which he previously proved on several ‘70's “soft-soul” albums. Mathis is nearly unrivaled among singers of his generation for maintaining his vocal chops and bridging stylistic and generational gaps in his choice of material. Unlike slightly older peers, such as Tony Bennett and the late Rosemary Clooney, Mathis often sounds very comfortable singing post-60's pop/R&B material. In this sense, the album is an entertaining confection featuring a few high profile duets and in sleek, state-of-the art adult contemporary arrangements. It reiterates Mathis’s endurance as one of pop’s most pliable voices.

**#65: Let It Be Me: Mathis in Nashville (2010): Despite the rural cover art and the song selection, this is more of a country flavored pop set—strings with pedal steel accents--than a true country album. Regardless, the listener is struck by the consistency and strength of Mathis’s singing, especially since the set was recorded live in the studio. He begins with a wistful “What a Wonderful World”—which never really sounds countrypolitan—and then delves into more predictable material including pop-country standards like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Crazy,” and “Let it Be Me.” His performances are uniformly warm, and he projects a palpable yearning in “Crazy,” “Lovin’ Arms” (with Vince Gill’s harmonies), and “Let It Be Me” (recorded with Allison Krauss). His most surprising performances include an impassioned “Please Help Me I’m Falling” and a tender rendition of the folk standard “Shenandoah.” 

#68:  Johnny Mathis Sings the Great New American Songbook (2017): Always one to keep his ear open to new sounds, Mathis sifts through the catalogs of contemporary performers, including Adele, Bruno Mars, and Pharrell Williams (“Happy”) for his latest interpretive adventure. He also visits tunes made famous by some pop, soul and country stalwarts such as Whitney Houston (“Run to You”), R. Kelly (“I Believe I Can Fly”), Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah”), and Alan Jackson (“Remember When”), among others. The results vary, in part because of the intrusive use of pitch correction on several tracks. He is at his best on Peter Allen’s classic “Once Before I Go” and country singer Keith Urban’s charming 2016 hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color” where he can sing the story without competing with the original versions or production effects.

 The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's  Unforgettable  and 1989's  The Island  are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

The boxed set includes four special albums, three of which were never released. 1983's Unforgettable and 1989's The Island are two of the vocalist's finest recordings.

1980’s Rarities: Unreleased albums

#46: I Love My Lady (1981): I know—the idea of someone with Mathis’s genteel, almost florid approach might seem like a misfit for the guitar-based funk of Chic, but the singer and group coalesce unexpectedly here. More in the vein of Luther Vandross’s “Never Too Much” funk-ish balladry than disco, Mathis, who is openly gay, sometimes sounds a bit distant singing the very straight lyrics. However, the rhythms perk along in a way very familiar to people who listened to black radio circa 1980-82. A dated, but intriguing set of songs and performances.

 **#48: Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole (1983): Mathis understandably idolized Cole, and like his idol, he has a warm tone, thoughtful phrasing, and a natural, emotionally restrained way with a lyric on this mix of live and studio performances. Though he and Cole have very different timbres, Mathis is in his element here imbuing some of Cole’s signatures with his own style. Mathis leans more toward ballads and mid-tempo songs than the swing songs in Cole’s repertoire, but he is as skillful an interpreter of this material as anyone. Natalie Cole sounds lovely and in command here, though she shows even greater aplomb on her 1991 blockbuster tribute.

 **#55: The Island (1989): Contemporary listeners may find the sleek keyboard laden production a bit retro, but the vocal performances on these mostly Brazilian classics are some of Mathis’s best. The lithe nature of his voice is well suited to the gentle melodies and slinking rhythms. He also makes true lyric poetry out of the best lyrics here. In terms of the quality of the material, especially on wistful songs like “Photograph,” “Your Smile,” and “Flower of Bahia,” and the passion in his voice, this is easily one of his most cohesive and enjoyable recordings.

#66: Odds & Ends: That’s What Keeps the Music Playing (2017): This 17-track compilation is exclusive to the boxed set. Interesting, if not essential, it features alternate takes of the Mathis hits “Teacher, Teacher” and “Wild is the Wind.” There are also five previously released tracks including his 1993 Westside Story duet with Barbra Streisand (“I Have A Love/One Hand, One Heart”), a 2007 version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” (recorded with saxophonist Dave Koz), and three Spanish tracks released previously on a 1993 Mathis boxed set Johnny Mathis: A Personal Collection. The key tracks are 10 songs recorded from 1960-76. Most fall within the conventions of ‘60s pop yearning, such as the Anglicized French ballad, “Now That You’ve Gone” or ‘70s soft rock, most notably his take on jazz composers Johnny Mandel and Dave Frishberg’s “You Are There.”


 Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

Johnny Mathis has recorded five Christmas albums for Columbia and one for Mercury. He is the undisputed King of Christmas among popular vocalists.

1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas!

In the rock era, roughly beginning in 1955, the vocalist most associated with Christmas music is Johnny Mathis. Mathis, whom I have described previously in a 2010 essay (“Shaking the Closet,” Popular Music & Society, December 2010, pages 597-623) as an exemplar of the Rock Era Crooner (REC) genre, has released six Christmas albums since 1958 including five on Columbia Records and one during his Mercury Records tenure. These include Merry Christmas (1958), Sounds of Christmas (Mercury, 1963), Give Me Your Love for Christmas (1969), Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (1986), The Christmas Album (2002), and Sending You a Little Christmas (2013). Over the course of these solo albums, he has sung 67 songs (!). Aside from Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby,” Darlene Love’s “Christmas, Baby Please Come Home” and novelty songs (e.g., “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”) there are few major songs associated with Christmas that he has not recorded.

            I have listened to all of his Columbia sets in their entirety. Their appeal depends on your mood. 1958’s Merry Christmas (#6) set has an innocent, lighthearted ‘50s feel. He mixes the giddy (“Sleigh Ride”), the sacred (“O Holy Night”) and the torchy (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) in a lush, echo-laden production. Give Me Your Love for Christmas (#23) is a bit brassier and more up-tempo, including the selections “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” In between are lovely ballads such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The key cut is a stellar rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” that displays the impressive power of his formidable pipes. By 1986, synthesizers and keyboards were a cheaper way to record than full orchestras so he goes for a sleeker, more streamlined approach on Christmas Eve with Johnny Mathis (#52). Singing in a lower range than his ‘50s and ‘60s era albums, he sounds as elegant as ever on a program mixing new holiday songs with standard fare such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “The Christmas Waltz.”

My personal favorite is 2002’s #62 The Christmas Album. Mathis covers some songs he has surprisingly never sung including “Joy to the World,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “We Need a Little Christmas.” It is a very jovial album full of pleasant atmospheric production choices. No Mathis holiday album is complete without good ballads and his “Snowfall/Christmas Time is Here” fulfills this need. On 2013’s Grammy nominated Sending You a Little Christmas (#66), his voice is slightly less limber; he recorded it when he was 78 (!) and he still sings beautifully. He also shares the microphone on several selections including duets with Susan Boyle, Natalie Cole, Gloria Estefan, Vince Gill and Amy Grant, and Billy Joel. Highlights include his version of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” Karen Carpenter’s “Merry Christmas Darling,” and an “I’ll Be Home For Christmas/White Christmas” medley sung with Gill and Grant.  

If you are truly hardcore about it, try 2014’s The Classic Christmas Album a compilation album of unreleased performances, including several cuts from his Columbia holiday albums and a duet with Bette Midler from her 2006 Christmas album Cool Yule. In 2015, Real Gone Music released five seasonal sets from 1958-2010 on the three disc boxed set The Complete Christmas Collection 1958–2010 which features four relevant bonus cuts from his catalog.

Listening to his earnest style over the course of 65 years, Mathis is one of the most talented and least self-conscious singers I have experienced. If he is sometimes overly earnest and reverent to his material, there is no trace of pretentiousness in his work. There is a fascinating integrity of style in his oeuvre, something intangibly artful and distinctive about his singing.

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 on the Riffs, Beats & Codas blog for discussions of his 1956-69 and 1970-85 recordings.


Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 2)

“Cover” Albums (mostly): 1970-1977

Mathis is the rare singer of his generation who relied almost entirely on cover albums of contemporary popular radio hits for the 1970s and survived. In the ‘70s he was able to author some new songs that made an impact, such as “I’m Coming Home,” and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” (with Deniece Williams), and transitioned into the '80s as a contemporary singer. Few of his ‘70s cover albums have been in print so the boxed set is a coup for Mathis fans. Sony/Legacy will release several with bonus tracks as CD's and digital downloads. Most of the albums recorded from 1970-77 are uneven, but there are some exceptions. Keep reading…

 **=Highly recommended album!

 The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

The 1970's was a prolific decade for Mathis who released 20+ albums during the decade!

#24: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (1970): The artistic potential and the expressive limitations of the covers formula are readily apparent here. On romantic ballads such as “Watch What Happens” and “A Man and a Woman,” Mathis’s interpretations exemplify why such '60s era pop songs are regarded as standards today. Some of the material is either silly, such as Jimmy Webb’s “Honey Come Back,” or inappropriate. The quasi-existential almost solipsistic lyrics of “Midnight Cowboy” (Mathis’s producer added words to the Midnight Cowboy instrumental theme) and Nilsson’s hit from the film, “Everybody’s Talkin’” are not the kind of songs that made Mathis famous.

 #25: Close to You (1970): A very mixed bag of logical covers such as the nostalgic “Yellow Days” and “Pieces of Dreams” and material either too bombastic (“The Long and Winding Road”) or too below standard (Ray Stevens’s icky “Everything is Beautiful”) for a singer with Mathis’s voice.

 #26: Love Story (1970): Every singer alive had their turn at the theme from Love Story in 1970/71 so why not Mathis?  To his credit “Where Do I Begin?” and other late 60's/early 70's ballad fare, especially, “It’s Impossible” and “What are you doing the Rest of Your Life” are well suited to Mathis’s voice and sensibility. A true crooner, he makes these melodies melt. A few songs, like “Rose Garden” and “My Sweet Lord” are too poppy to cohere with the ballads.

 #27: Today’s Great Hits You’ve Got a Friend (1971): Despite the cheesy title (it literally screams for an obnoxious TV announcer proclaiming “Todays Great Hits!”) this set of high quality pop songs from everyone from Carole King to Kris Kristofferson is surprisingly amenable. Easy melodies, slick arrangements, and poised vocals—most of it slips on by, true easy listening. Mathis sings his heart out on Jacque Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” and he sounds absolutely at ease on a bonus cut of The Beatles’ classic “Golden Slumbers.”

 **#28: In Person (1971): Mathis’s approach to Vegas-style entertainment is very different from Elvis, Engelbert Humperdinck, or Wayne Newton—and that is a good thing. Taking sum of his ‘50's classics and his new role as a conduit for ‘70's soft pop, he represents the past and present quite strikingly on this live set. Mathis’s self-effacing style runs counter to the Vegas schlock aesthetic and allows the songs to shine. If the “Close to You/We’ve Only Just Begun” medley plays to the hit status of these songs in the early 70’s (hence the immediate applause), his medley of Errol Garner’s “Misty”/”Dreamy” and several signatures is for the ages. He also showcases a refreshing sense of humor on Ivor Novello’s “And Her Mother Came Too,” some soulful grit on “Come Runnin,’ ” and showcases his robust vocal mettle on Brel’s “If We Only Have Love.” If you want a quick summary of what he is capable of as a vocalist, entertainer, and artist, this is an excellent start.

**#29: The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face) (1972): One of Mathis’s best early ‘70's albums hues to the covers formula and yet, succeeds. He sounds like himself on contemporary fare like the title track and “Betcha By Golly Wow,” and renders a fine rendition of the standard “Since I Fell for You.” There are several movie themes including the ubiquitous “Brian’s Song,” “Theme from “‘Summer of 42,’” and “Speak Softly Love” from The Godfather. As sappy as these songs are, his renditions are appropriately lush and respectable. There are a few redundant covers (“Without You,” “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All”), and some forgettable tunes, but as lush romantic pop this works.

 #30: Song Sung Blue (1972): Some songs reflect the personae of their authors so strongly that covering (or even interpreting) them is borderline absurd. Neil Diamond’s imprint is all over the title song and “Play Me” making Mathis’s versions seem truly rote. A more general note is how morose songs were in the ‘70s.  In the right context songs like “Where is the Love” and “Along Again (Naturally)” are listenable enough, but listening to such songs in a steady state is enervating. Relief is here in the form of a Nat King Cole oldie, “Too Young,” and a deliciously lovelorn version of the doo-wop classic “I’m on the Outside Looking In.”

 #31: Me & Mrs. Jones (1972): The idea of Mathis sneaking around with the infamous secret mistress in the title track is beyond ridiculous. More enjoyable are his takes on softer, and less scandalous, songs from Bread (“Sweet Surrender”) and James Taylor (“Don’t Let Me Be lonely Tonight”) that place him on a continuum between crooning and a more polished version of folk singing.

 #32: Killing Me Softly with her Song (1973): The redundancy theme reaches an apex here. Overly familiar hits like the title song seem to drag onward with little deviation or surprise. Interestingly Mathis, not Al Wilson, debuted “Show and Tell,” though Wilson made it a #1 hit.

 **#33: I’m Coming Home (1973): Thom Bell and Linda Creed were two of the most creative songwriters of the period and their collaboration with Mathis bridges crooning and “soft” Philly Soul very comfortably. The backstory is that they interviewed Mathis to craft songs around his experiences and point of view. Whether this “story song” concept comes through is less important than Mathis’s subdued yet involving approach. There is a yearning quality to “Coming Home,” a measurable calm to the melodious “And I Think That’s What I’ll Do,” and a grandeur to “Life is a Song worth Singing” that offer signs of life that Mathis was not ready to surrender to covers completely.

 #34: Heart of a Woman (1974): On the cover Mathis is wearing all denim with his shirt fully unbuttoned, holding a microphone and standing in various poses ranging from the buoyant to the crouched over. Is this supposed to be sexy? Is this him singing in the studio? Are these physical manifestations of discomfort? Who knows, but the songs here, mostly originals, cast Mathis in a kind of “lover man” role that never quite works. Most of the songs and the production is more pop-soul than anything, but it’s an awkward, unfocused affair.

 **#35: When Will I See You Again (1975): Maybe it was Bell and Creed having Mathis sing in his lower range, or just a desire to mix things up, but When is among the more enjoyable of his cover projects. Once again, fit is everything. Mathis sounds just as comfortable singing “Nice to Be Around,” “You’re Right as Rain,” and “You and Me Against the World” as he does on many of his signatures. Frankly, he makes many of the songs here sound better than they are. That’s a gift.

 #36: Feelings (1975): Mathis continued When’s winning ways bringing out the best in good radio fare like “Midnight Blue”  and “99 Miles from L.A.” and showing how smart arranging can work on a contemporary rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” From this point forward more pre-rock standards start to show up on his albums, which is usually a good thing.

 #37: I Only Have Eyes for You (1976): The title track is modernized quite skillfully here and is the standout performance. There are two lightweight originals, “Do Me Wrong But do Me” and “Ooh What We Do,” and cover songs ranging from interesting schlock (“Theme from Mahogany”) to pretentious irredeemable schlock (“I Write the Songs”).

 **#38: Mathis Is (1976):  Re-teaming with Thom Bell, this sequel to I’m Coming Home is lush, delicate, and modern. While no one song necessarily stands out, the songs sound like they were written for his voice, and there are some appealing instrumental touches throughout especially the interplay of strings, vibes, and percussion. Easily one of his most appealing and listenable sets.

 #39: Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me (1977): Mathis fuses a little bit of this and little bit of that from various eras and genres resulting in an eclectic and mostly entertaining set. The title is appropriately bubbly and romantic, and he navigates the very tricky modulations of “All the Things You Are” seamlessly.  Both make you long for a full album of standards…but alas. Mathis turns to Broadway on fine versions of “One,” from A Chorus Line and “Tomorrow” from Annie. Chorus has aged well, whereas Annie dated itself instantly, but he was trying to be progressive. On the pop side, Boz Scagg’s “We’re All Alone” and Streisand’s “Evergreen” showcase Mathis the torch singer and the romantic. Less pressing is his stab at “When I Need You” and the dreadful TV them song-ish “Don’t Give Up on Us.” The reissue is rescued toward the end by two excellent finds. One is a dynamic disco tune called “Experiment” (no composer is listed) that gels quite well with Mathis’s natural exuberance.  The other is a splendid version of Stevie Wonder’s “If It’s Magic.” The idea that they put something this good aside so Mathis could cover David Soul and Leo Sayer boggles the mind, but we should be grateful it has now surfaced.

#40: You Light Up My Life (1977): Mathis’s most commercially successful album of the ‘70s replicates the covers formula with everything from Debby Boone to Bee Gees to “If You Believe” from The Wiz.  The main draw here is his hit duet with Deniece Williams on “Too Much Too Little Too Late” a frothy song that topped the pop, R&B and easy listening charts. Their duet version of the Bee Gees’s’ “Emotion” is very fun as is his modernized solo version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Where or When.”


 Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

Mathis pursued adult contemporary/soft rock, and adult R&B/soft soul in the 1980's.

1978-88: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary

At the tail end of the decade, Mathis began shifting gears from overt covers toward more original material. Mathis’s 1980s recordings are surprisingly varied. Though he consciously pursued the adult contemporary and adult soul markets, many of his better recordings found him experimenting with new material, such as the Brazilian pop on The Island (unreleased), or revisiting songs from previous eras including a Nat “King” Cole tribute, interpretations of classic Hollywood musicals, and a nod to 50s and 60s pop, R&B, and doo-wop.

**#41: That’s What Friends Are For (1978): Mathis and Deniece Williams built from “Too Much Too Little To Late’s” success by recording a whole album of pop-soul duets. They harmonize beautifully together and complement each other emotionally.  They revisit Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and reimagine songs associated with Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel. There are some frothy originals that showcase their chemistry plus an interesting reprise of the Williams penned title song which she recorded only 2 years earlier solo. The boxed set also features other Mathis-Williams pairings including the theme from Family Ties “Without Us.” Understandably popular, this is a delightful confection for the ears.

#42: The Best Days of My Life (1979): Other than discofied versions of “As Time Goes by” and “Begin the Beguine” and Mathis and Jane Olivor’s duet on the film theme “The Last Time I Felt Like This” (from Same Time Next Year) there’s not much here. Mostly disco and forgettable ballads.

 #43: Mathis Magic (1979): An uneasy mix of schmaltzy ballads (“She Believes in Me”), forgettable disco (“My Body Keeps Changing My Mind”), and oddball experiments. The disco versions of the standards “Night and Day,” “That Old Black Magic” and “To the Ends of the Earth” work better than they should, but are ultimately timepieces. The highlight is easily his warm, straight-ahead version of “New York State of Mind.”

 #44: Different Kinda Different (1980): A combo of soft balladry, disco, and a few numbers with a Latin tinge.  This set is more ambitious than the typical cover outing Mathis was recording at the time.  There are more original songs on the album, but none of them became staples of his performing repertoire.  Highlights include a fine version of “Deep Purple” set as a waltz, and a gentle version of “With You I’m Born Again.” Not an embarrassment, but not especially memorable.

#45: Friends in Love (1982): This album is notable for spawning Mathis’s last top 40 pop hit single in his duet with Dionne Warwick on the title track. A glossy adult contemporary pop album, it is most notable for a) not being a cover album and b) good renditions of some pop semi-classics including a pop version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,”  a sleek version of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” and one of the first versions of “Warm” a ballad many singers, such as Jane Olivor, have covered. The bonus features a weird '50s semi-waltz version of “We Kiss in a Shadow.”

 **#47: A Special Part of Me (1984): This is one of Mathis’s best contemporary pop-soul sets circa the 1980's. Highlights include two of Mathis’s strongest duets, including a hit cover of “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” with Deniece Williams and “You’re a Special Part of Me” with Angela Bofill, and believably perky pop songs, “Simple” and “Love Never Felt So Good.” Few of these songs became Mathis classics a la “Misty,” but he is in great voice throughout and the material fits his ‘80's persona well.

** #49: Johnny Mathis Live (1984): Recorded in London in 1983 this is a tight focused concert. He mixes some contemporary songs of the late 70's/early 80's variety such as Kenny Loggins’s “I Believe in Love” and Albert Hammond’s “99 Miles from L.A.” with Mathis signatures (“A Certain Smile,” “The Twelfth of Never”) and a few surprises like “Orange Colored Sky,” the Nat King Cole hit. Mathis is flawless vocally, and his audience is with him every step of the way, especially on his signatures. A few of the songs, such as “Try to Win a Friend,” are mundane, but Mathis is poised, spirited, and highly listenable. 

 #50: Right From the Heart (1985): The sleek, anonymous sound of the DX-7 keyboard and the hook-driven nature of '80's “adult contemporary” music pervade this 10 song 45 minute pop-soul set. Instead of covers or standards, these are new but generic, anonymous songs vaguely reminiscent of George Benson and Al Jarreau’s early ‘80's radio hits. Mathis sounds good, but the generic production sheen washes over the eccentricities that make him unique.

Part 3 examines Mathis's recordings from 1986-present + Rarities & Christmas albums!


Johnny Mathis (Easy) Listening party! An appreciation in three parts (Part 1)

For the last 30 years or so, we have been celebrating the third act of the luminous Tony Bennett’s career. His re-signing with Columba Records in 1986 brought him back to the mainstream, but his early 1990s tributes to Sinatra and Astaire, as well as a generation transcending performance in MTV Unplugged made him everybody’s favorite hip classic crooner. Few pop singers have their first number one album when they are 85, but Bennett has expanded our understanding of hip.

A singer of similar vintage who has never quire registered as hip is the enduring crooner Johnny Mathis. Mathis signed with Columbia only five years after Bennett in 1956, and like Bennett, he eventually came under the tutelage of producer Mitch Miller. Whereas Bennett rebelled against Miller’s questionable tastes and hungered for jazz credibility, Mathis and his manager trusted Miller’s commercial instincts and he quickly transitioned from a fledgling pop-jazz singer (his debut album is tentative) to a skillful pop crooner whose appeal transcended age and generation. Despite the common rock-ist narrative that Elvis, Chuck, Buddy, and Little Richard knocked all the crooners off the charts, Mathis was popular on the radio and the album charts. He currently stands among the top five most popular albums sellers of all-time. Mathis was one of the first black singers to have a chart-topping album in the mid-1950s, he was the first artists to ever release a Greatest Hits album, and his name is virtually synonymous with Christmas.

Unlike Bennett, he has rarely had jazz pretentions and is quite comfortable being pop and not being hip. For 62 years (!) he has soldiered forth, stolidly applying his delectable tenor to a staggeringly broad range of popular, and occasionally semi-popular, songs. He has sung torch songs, ballads, disco tunes, Brazilian pop, soft soul, folk-rock, gospel hymns, holiday material, showtunes, Jewish sacred music, country, soft rock, movie themes, and pretty much everything else. He has sung solo, in duets, and with choirs. He has sang in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish. This versatility is not part of a specific aesthetic strategy other than the old-fashioned notion, among his generation, that a popular singer is an entertainer who builds’ an audience by interpreting the songs of the day in their own vocal style.

 I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set  The Voice of Romance:   The Columbia Original Album Collection  (Sony/Legacy).

I listened to all 68 albums featured in the 2017 Johnny Mathis boxed set The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Original Album Collection (Sony/Legacy).

After releasing over 75 albums (excluding compilations!) albums, 65 on Columbia and 10 at Mercury Records during his 1963-66 stint, Sony/Legacy is honoring his legacy with The Voice of Romance: The Columbia Albums Collection. Within the pink box, a thick square book of liner notes, and 68 CD's in sleeves reproducing his album covers. One could easily track key trends in American male fashion and African-American hairstyles over the last 60 years gawking at the album covers (!), but the music is the most important stuff and there is a lot of it. In order to digest these recordings I decided to listen to them out or order.   Mathis’s Columbia recordings can be divided into a few phases including the following:

·         1957-63: Signature sound: These are the albums where he established his core vocal sound and repertoire. In addition, these albums first cemented his defining songs. At this time established composers such as New York cabaret favorite Bart Howard, and up and comers like Burt Bacharach regularly wrote new material for pop singers like Mathis to premiere.

·         1967-77: The “covers” era: Former Columbia Records executive Clive Davis is usually maligned for his baldly commercial strategy of directing Columbia veterans like Mathis and Andy Williams to cover the biggest hits of any given year rather than record new untested material. Though Mathis did not adhere strictly to this, for example Thom Bell and Linda creed wrote new songs for him on 1973’s Coming Home and 1975’s Mathis Is, this is the era of albums mostly titled after number one hits for other singers including like Song Sung Blue, Killing Me Softly with Her Song, You Light Up My Life, etc. Theoretically, these should represent the nadir of his career, but because most are being released on CD for the first time, and because he actually worked with arrangers to tweak them, they may be one of the biggest finds of the set. Toward the mid-to-late 1970s he began sprinkling pre-rock standards in with more contemporary hits, but updating them for the slick pop-soul lushness of the era.

·         1978-86: Mathis gets (adult) contemporary era: After having a #1 pop, R&B and adult contemporary hit with “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” with Deniece Williams, Mathis began recording more new songs and having hits with original material. His work with Williams was among his most popular material of the decade and he began the 1980s strongly, making appearances on the pop, adult contemporary and R&B charts.

·         1986-present: Repertory singer: Having recorded most of the major new pop songs of the '60s and '70s, and scored with contemporary lite FM and quiet storm type material, Mathis recorded mostly songbooks dedicated to composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Alan and Marilyn Bergman to Diane Warren (now that’s a leap!), as well as sets devoted to Broadway, countrypolitan classics, and of course Christmas music.    

·         1980’s Rarities: One of the intriguing aspects for a singer as recorded as Mathis is the relative abundance of unreleased material. Several albums, especially from the '70s and '80s, have the occasional bonus cut. Beyond these are three sets of particular interest to Mathis fans. One is 1982’s I Love My Lady a funk-pop recorded with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers of Chic but never released. Second is 1983’s Unforgettable: A Musical Tribute to Nat King Cole, a recording from a live BBC performance featuring a medley by Natalie Cole. Third, is 1989’s unreleased Brazilian pop set The Island, produced by Sergio Mendes. Stray tracks have appeared on previous compilations, but this is the full set featuring versions of songs by Ivan Lins, Dori Caymmi, and Mendes, among others.

·         1958-2013: ‘Tis the Season: Johnny Mathis does Christmas! Since 1958, Mathis has recorded six holiday albums including five at Columbia and one for Mercury Records. He is probably the signer most associated with Christmas, alongside Perry Como and Bing Crosby. He has recorded a holiday album in nearly every decade since the 1950s warranting special critical attention.

Below in Part 1 I trace Mathis’s discography chronologically, from 1956 through his including his 1963-67 Mercury Records tenure. Part 2 explores his career from the 1967 covers era through the 1980's. Part 3 addresses his career from the late 1980's-present when he focused more interpreting music thematically. I also explore the three unreleased albums featured in the box set, and his signature affinity for Christmas albums. The (#) refers to the numbering of CD’s featured in The Voice of Romance boxed set. Albums highlighted are albums I recommend as essential Mathis recordings.

**=Highly recommended album!


 Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

Johnny Mathis established his distinctive sound from 1956-59 during his first few years recording for Columbia Records.

1950’s “Signature Sound” Albums

Mathis established himself as one of the premier new voices of the 1950s by carving out unmined territory that sandwiched him between generations. His crooning style, which blended crooning with his classical training and technique, drew on the ballad repertoire of his idols, such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, was framed successfully by arrangers such as Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, and others whose lush, romantic approach resonated with his generation in parallel to rock and roll and other emerging forms.


#1: Johnny Mathis (1956) was an attempt to present Mathis as a jazz-oriented singer, but it is really a pop album, which for the 1950s meant pop standards with minimum vocal improvisation, featuring jazz musicians. Nothing here really distinguished Mathis. By 1957, when he released **#2:Wonderful Wonderful, (1957) arranged by Percy Faith, Mathis as we know him was emerging. Wonderful is a luscious and highly listenable album of ballads with a few uptempo songs for balance. The lush approach is predictably lush and sentimental; an approach that complements his voice and sensibility perfectly. #3:Warm (1957) continues the Mathis sound; it too is lush, orchestral balladry. There is probably a bit more reverb and echo than is necessary but it makes for very moody, enveloping listen. Besides, this was a production style of the ‘50’s. Mathis’s rendition of “Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” was selected for The Smithsonian’s seminal  1984 five disc American Popular Song collection as an exemplary interpretation of the standard. Aside from Christmas music (see Part 3!) Mathis is not generally associated with sacred music. But he, arranger Percy Faith and Columbia apparently thought his voice was well-suited to classic religious songs from multiple faith traditions on **#4 Good Night, Dear Lord and…they were right. Though people associate Mathis with a high, refined tenor sound he sings in a slightly lower range and he sounds gorgeous and in control. On selections like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for example, he does not cover other singers’ approaches. He instead sings in a key and tempo well suited to his distinctive voice and interpretive approach. “Where Will I Go,” is among the standouts, and two refreshingly varied versions of “Ave Maria” round out the set. A genuinely unexpected and moving performance.  **#5: Swing Softly (1958) is my favorite Mathis album. Though Mathis prefers to sing melodies as written, and does little improvising, he has a great feel for light swing and mid-tempo material and gives one of his most energetic and endearing performances here. Highlights include wonderful versions of “Like Someone in Love,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and “Love Walked In.” After recording albums with orchestras and big bands Mathis approached things more intimately on **#7: Open Fire Two Guitars (1959) featuring just his voice supported by two guitars and bass. He is at his most sensuous on Cole Porter’s “In the Still of the Night” and at his romantic best on “You’ll Never Know.” A surprising approach in his vast catalog. Mathis’s legendary performance of Errol Garner’s “Misty” is featured on **#8: Heavenly (1959). Surrounding this classic performance are warm, relaxed renditions of gorgeous ballads such as “That’s All” and “More Than You Know.” In the span of three years, Mathis went from a new voice pitched awkwardly between vocal jazz and pop to a distinct new sound of late 1950’s pop.


1960-63 @ Columbia

1959’s Faithfully (#9) and 1960’s Johnny’s Mood (#12) reiterated the style of moody ballads bathed in strings and echo. Slightly more interesting conceptually, was 1960’s #10: Ballads of Broadway, packaged with #11: Rhythms of Broadway, which were sold separately and as a combined “deluxe edition” album.  Broadway had always informed Mathis’s repertoire. He was especially fond of songs from Westside Story, for example. But, these two sets brought together some of pop music’s most distinguished songs drawn from the theatrical stage. Mathis is at his best on ballads, such as “Isn’t it a Pity.” He sounds less sure of himself on some of the more uptempo songs where he vacillates between awkwardness, strangeness, and bombast. Mathis’s pairings with the renowned arranger for Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, on 1961’s I’ll Buy You a Star (#13) (1961) and Live It Up (#14) are also uneven. His ethereal tenor seems designed for dreamy songs such as “Magic Garden,” but is a mismatch for the lustier “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street.”  A year later, however, he and arranger Don Costa recorded a Mathis masterpiece with sensuous and appropriately titled **Rapture (#15) (1962). The Costa connection persists well on 1963’s Johnny (#16), and **Romantically (#17) (1963).


 In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

In the 1960's Mathis recorded a broad range of themes with a variety of arrangers.

1963-67: Mathis @ Mercury

From 1963-67, Mathis left Columbia for Mercury Records. He recorded 10 albums including sets dedicated to Broadway, Christmas, Latin American music, and established and contemporary standards, such as The Beatles’ “Michelle” and “Yesterday.” He also continued with contemporary fare ranging from new showtunes such as “The Impossible Dream,” (from The Man from La Mancha) to bossa nova songs such as “So Nice,” and recent movie themes, including “More,” and “Somewhere My Love.” Sonny/Legacy compiled all of these recordings on 2014’s The Complete Global Albums Collection.

In 2012, the record label Real Gone Music reissued several Mercury era Mathis albums in their entirety. These sets include 1964’s **The Wonderful World of Make Believe and Tender is the Night, 1965’s Love is Everything (featuring an unreleased album Broadway), 1965’s This is Love and Olé, 1965’s Sweetheart Tree and The Shadow of Your Smile and 1966’s So Nice and Johnny Mathis Sings. Hopefully, these will shed additional light on Mathis’s prolific career and inspire more critical assessments of his work. **Love is Everything is an appealingly lush and romantic set. He lives up to the title of Everything giving his all emotionally and vocally. He belts out the opener “Never Let Me Go” with tenacious vigor; “Young and Foolish” has an intense, meditative quality as does “This is All I Ask.” Pop songs were usually about three minutes in 1965 but at 3:40 (“Young”) and 4:04 (“This”) the arrangements provide room for him to stretch out. Broadway finds Mathis in his element, show tunes, but it has a very eclectic feel atypical of Mathis’s albums. He delivers some of his funkiest phrasing on a horn-laden version of “Ain’t It De Truth” (a Lena Horne number from Jamaica). “Manhattan” has a charmingly naïve romanticism via his vocal coloration choices. He chews through “Don’t Rain on my Parade” enthusiastically and delivers on fresh tunes like Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Once in a Lifetime.” It is puzzling why this album was not released.

**Wonderful World focuses on the dreamy ballads like “Beyond the Sea” and “When You Wish upon the Star”; Tender features more familiar ‘50s and ‘60s fare like “Call Me Irresponsible” and “Somewhere.”  As a whole, these recordings refute the sometimes-hysterical assertions that the mid-50s rise of rock ‘n’ roll “killed” romantic American pop. Most the songs featured on these albums are proof that many excellent songs of high melodic, harmonic and lyric qualities emerged throughout the 1960s; and Mathis recorded many of the most credible and enjoyable renditions.

1997’s double-disc compilation Global Masters was the only place to go until Collector’s Choice’s 2009 reissues. In 1969, Columbia allowed Mathis to repackage some of his best Mercury recordings on the compilations **The Impossible Dream and People. Dream is one of the finest crooner “cover” albums of ‘60s pop. Granted, “Strangers in the Night” and “Eleanor Rigby” are not exactly “Roll Over Beethoven”—which is to say not a great stretch for an experienced balladeer. However, this suite coheres amazingly well. Mathis’s performances are rich, impassioned and confident and the material is a strong match. 1960s era movie themes (“I Will Wait for You,” “Strangers,” “Somewhere My Love,” “Moment to Moment”) and showtunes ( “On a Clear Day,” the title track) balance tradition and modernity in their musical and lyrical style in a manner perfectly suitable to a singer who followed the decline of traditional pop and preceded the rise of rock ‘n’ roll. His covers of “Rigby,” “Go Away Little Girl,” and the standard “The Very Thought of You” are also satisfying.

People feels more forced and less coherent. He transforms Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” into an impressively emotional orchestral epic, gently soars on “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (sang in Portuguese), and gives a sprightly performance of “A Wonderful Day Like Today.” However, his robust voice and overripe arrangements almost overwhelm seemingly appropriate material like “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “People.” Other performances such as “What the World Needs Now” are routine retreads.


 Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download  The Complete Global Albums Collection .

Listeners interested in Mathis's four-year stint at Mercury Records can purchase or download The Complete Global Albums Collection.

Closing out the 1960’s

Albums #18-#22, recorded from 1967-69 find Mathis wavering between the tried and true and newer fare. Whereas some crooners departed major labels altogether but the end of the 1960's Mathis transitioned into a successful career in soft rock. 1967’s **#18 Up, Up and Away is a delightful collection rife with delicate textures, subtle choral backing, and naturalist vocal performances of mellow pop. Among its highlights are a laid-back rendition of the title track, the languorous “Drifting” and the surprisingly agreeable country and folk-flavored songs “Misty Roses” and “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” He also turns in fine renditions of the standard “The More I See You” and the Dr. Doolittle theme “When I Look in Your Eyes.” Though hardly a monumental recording, it is a tasteful and accomplished set of modern crooner pop. 1968’s Love is Blue (#19) is a similar suite of light pop. He sings four Bacharach-David songs well, gently croons on Lennon-McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere” and delivers a fine “Moon River.” The rest is lighthearted; the only misstep is an awkward cover of Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” which feels out of place.

Mathis concluded the 1960's with  1968’sThose Were the Days (#20),  1968’s Johnny Mathis Sings the Music of Bert Kaempfert (#21), and 1969’s Love Theme from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (#22). Days rises and falls based purely on the material. The hokey title song, the umpteenth cover of the silly pseudo-homily “Little Green Apples” and a reprise of Skeeter Davis’s “End of the World” seem like wastes of Mathis’s vocal resources. Jim Morrison, Paul Simon, and Rod McKuen are not compatible composers for Mathis’s sensibilities even if he turns in technically competent renderings of their material. Kaempfert is best known for MOR classics such as “Spanish Eyes,” “”L-O-V-E,” and “Strangers in the Night.” Mathis performs these, and other Kaempfert tunes, competently, but it is a pretty stock easy listening pop and does not make the case for the composer as a first-tier songwriter.  Love Theme is far more satisfying. Some of the more notable torch ballads from the era featured include fine versions of the Bergmans’ “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Charles Aznavour’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We.” He is also quite appealing on “Live for Life” and his hit rendition of Bacharach and David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Whereas his renditions of film and musical theater tunes are generally reliable, the title track is epically schmaltzy and his version of the Fifth Dimension’s medley from Hair, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” feels forced. The remainder is agreeable pop material.

Part 2 examines Mathis's recordings from 1970-85!


Syllabus: Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955

After an eight-year absence, I am back in the classroom as a Contributing Faculty Member in the Department of Music at Dickinson College. This spring I am teaching the course Music in the United States: The American Rock Music Canon since 1955. I decided to organize this course around the notion that since the 60+ years when rock ‘n’ roll emerged as the dominant form of popular music a series of patterns define the most common stories about the genre.


 Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Rock 'n' roll pioneer Chuck Berry is one of the many canonical artists my students read about in the seminar.

Typically this means the following:

 1955-59: Known as the Golden Age of rock ‘n’ roll when pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Crickets, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis establish the sonic and cultural blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

1959-63: The era signifies the decline of rock ‘r’ roll’s initial vitality with the emergence of ersatz rock ‘n’ rollers (e.g., teen idols, American Bandstand) and more producer driven pop (e.g., girl groups)

1963-65: Some glimmers of hope emerge including Motown, Surf Music, The Beatles and the “British Invasion,” and folk-rock

1965-69: The mid to late 1960s era parallels significant shifts happening within the social sphere signified by soul music, acid/psychedelic rock, and art rock.

1970s: Pop music reaches a new eclecticism.  The prominence of singer-songwriters (e.g., Elton John, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell) and soft rock (e.g., Bread, The Carpenters) signifies a cultural “cooling” and a turn toward introspection; black pop expands into jazz fusion, funk and lush new territory (e.g., Quiet Storm, Philly Soul); mainstream rock (e.g., Led Zeppelin, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac) grows more elaborate and commercially robust; bubbling from the urban underground come glam, punk, disco, which dominates the last few years of the decade, and the rumblings of a new urban dance culture called hip-hop.

 Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

Singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell represented a renewed interest in softer, introspective popular music in the 1970s.

1980s: MTV reinvigorates the promotional potential of pop, providing a platform for new wave, British synth-pop and the model for video pop exemplified by Michael Jackson’s triumph with Thriller. Record labels also take a strategic multimedia approach linking movies and soundtracks (e.g., Flashdance, Footloose). The combination of these and an increasingly deregulated economy foster a pop boom. Mainstream pop stars regularly generate multiplatinum sales a trend encompassing everyone from rockers such as Springsteen to video pop divas like Madonna and Whitney Houston to funksters like Prince. Youth oriented styles stimulate innovations including college rock, post-punk music, hip-hop, and New Jack swing.

 MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

MTV provided a major platform for British synthesizer pop bands such as the Human League in the early to mid 1980s.

1990s: Digital sales technology reveals country music and adult contemporary music as the most popular music in the country, and related acts like Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey dominate commercially. As these more traditional forms thrive, hip-hop and alternative rock become the lingua franca of a new generation of listeners.

2000-09: Musically, the angst laden nature of the 1990s surrenders to teen pop, boy bands, and a new generation of pop divas aiming for a young audience. New hybrids like rap metal emerge, and old ideas with a new twist, such as American Idol’s popular take on the talent show genre define much of the decade. The biggest industrial shift is the rise of MP3 technology and social media. Both make it easier for emerging artists to gain mass exposure without record companies, decentralize record stores as the primary sources of music for consumers, and shift sales dominance from physical albums to single downloads.

2010-present: The digitization of pop has also created an increasingly fragmented musical landscape devoid of a dominant style. Few acts have cross-generational appeal. Diva pop, afro-futurist R&B, EDM and teen pop compete for attention, though certain voices, including Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West have developed strong personae and established a commercial foothold. The story continues unfolding.

 Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.

Hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar is one of the most popular and acclaimed voices in popualr music of the 2010s.


Buried within these generic narrative patterns are a host of overlooked artists, subgenres, movements, and innovations that challenge conventional wisdom. The ultimate aim for the course is for students to learn rock’s canonical narrative so they can challenge and deconstruct it in an informed, scholarly way. The continuity between pre-rock music genres, the influences of music originating outside of the United States, the strategies artists adapt to survive commercially, and other topics are rarely included in popular rock histories. By association, certain genres ranging from bossa nova to cabaret music to holiday music rarely figure into these stories though all three genres persist.

 Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

Holiday albums have been perennially popular in the post-1955 rock era, but rarely factor into the mainstream story of contemporary popular music.

 Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

Mainstream rock history can be very ethnocentric in detailing the music of the 1960s. Where does the Brazilian style bossa nova fit?

 Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?

Rock era crooners such as Barbra Streisand, who has roots in "non-rock" fields like cabaret and musical theater, still record and tour successfully. How has mainstream rock hisotry addressed the continuity of these musicla stlyes?


I am excited to share the readings on my syllabus for the spring 2018 semester. I have structured the class in two parts. Part One, functions as a literature review. Students either lead group presentations focused on readings from canonical texts, or they select readings from a “reader’s choice” menu. These readings complement, counter, challenge, and and/or complicate the themes from the canonical readings. In Part Two, students will focus on an overlooked or underdeveloped part of the rock story and develop final projects that illuminate these missing or overlooked pieces so we can expand the story and appreciate how multiple stories constitute post-1955 popular music.  I hope you enjoy the readings; I am excited to refine the course in future semesters and welcome suggestions for future readings!

Books (Required):

Flowers in the Dustbin: The rise of rock and roll, 1947-1977, James Miller

Rockin in Time (8th edition), David Szatmary

Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA (6th edition), Rebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman


Reader’s Choice Reading Menu (Articles, chapters, and /or essays posted on Moodle)

Students have required readings from the books listed above and will also select readings from a reader’s choice “menu” of reading options drawn from the following:

Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (1999), Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, editors

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music (2009), Elijah Wald

Great Pretenders: My Strange Love Affair with ‘50s Pop Music, Karen Schoemer

The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader: Histories and Debates (2005), David Brackett, editor

It’s  Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal (1972), Jon Landau

All Shook Up: How Rock and Roll Changed America (2003), Glenn Altschuler

Sexing the Groove (1997), Sheila Whiteley, editor

The Latin Beat: The Rhythms and Roots of Latin Music from Bossa Nova to Salsa and Beyond (2003), Ed Morales

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop music from Bill Haley to Beyonce (2013), Bob Stanley

Love for Sale: Popular Music in America (2016), David Hajdu

Rock and Roll: An Unruly History (1995), Robert Palmer

Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination (2016), Jack Hamilton

The Essential Ellen Willis (2014), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

The Rock History Reader [1st ed.] (2006), Theo Cateforis, editor

Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 (1973), Robert Christgau

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011), Nona Willis, Aronowitz, editor

What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1999), Mark Anthony Neal

The Sound of the City: The rise of rock and roll (multiple editions), Charlie Gillett

Right to Rock: the Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (2004), Maureen Mahon

World Music: The Basics (2004), Richard Nidel

Understanding Popular Music Culture [3rd ed.] (2008), Roy Shuker

American Popular Music (2006), Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman

Check It, While You Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop culture, and the Public Sphere (2004), Gwendolyn D. Pough

Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology (2007), Gwendolyn D. Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, and Rachel Raimist, editors

The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (2015), Jessica Hopper

Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, (2017), Ann Powers

Popular Music in Theory (1996), Keith Negus

Part One: Exposes students to the canonical contours of post-1950s pop music from rock ‘n’ roll to hip-hop, which are typically organized by genre.


Unit 1: Mid 1950s-1964

January 22: Welcomes & Introductions


January 24

What is the “Rock Era?”

ALL: Rodman, 35-45, Key Terms in Popular Music [Moodle]

ALL: Wald, 1-12, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Précis peer review session


January 26

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 4: Crossing Cultures: The Eruption of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 81-123

Group 2: Miller, Chapter 1, 80-94

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 1: The Blues, Rock-and-Roll, and Racism, 1-27


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

“Chapter 11: Producers Answer Back,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 44-49 [Moodle]

“Chapter 20: Langston Hughes Responds,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 80-82 [Moodle]

“Chapter 21: From Rhythm and Blues to Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 82-88 [Moodle]

Landau, “Introduction,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 13-18 [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Thesis writing


January 29

Rock ‘n’ Roll’s “Golden Age”

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 2, 97-128

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 3, 129-137


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “Brown Eyed Handsome Man: Rock ‘n’ Roll and Race,” All Shook Up, 35-66 [Moodle]

Sanjek, “Can a Fujiyama Mama Be the Female Elvis?” Sexing the Groove, 137-167 [Moodle]

Morales, “Ch. 9: The Hidden History of Latinos and Latin Influence in Rock and Hip-Hop,” The Latin Beat, 275-301 [Moodle]


In-class workshop: Integrating evidence


Unit 2: Teen pop, girl groups, and Motown

January 31

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 5: The Empire Strikes Back: The Reaction to Rock ‘n’ Roll, 124-48

Group 2: Miller, 138-56

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 3: The Teen Market: From Bandstand to Girl Groups, 55-69


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Altschuler, “The Day the Music Died: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Lull and Revival,” All Shook Up, 161-184 [Moodle]

Schoemer, “Introduction,” Great Pretenders, 1-21 [Moodle]

Stanley, Chapter 9: The Trouble with Boys: The Brill Building and Girl Groups, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 65-73 [Moodle]


February 2

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 8: Motown: The Sound of Integration, 135-46

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): The Civil Rights Movement and Popular Music: “Girl Groups, Male Producers, and Brill Building Pop”; “Motown: The Integration of Pop” 150-163


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “Motown: The First Yen Years,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 143-150 [Moodle]

Wald, “Twisting Girls Change the World,” How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, 213-229 [Moodle]


Unit 3: Mid to late 1960s

February 5

British invasion

Group 1: Miller, Chapter 4, 177-217

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 6: The British Invasion of America, 102-20

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “The British Invasion Occupies the Pop Charts,” 163-68


February 7


Group 4: Miller, 217-31

Szatmary, Chapter 5: The New Frontier, 80-101

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Breaking the Sounds of Silence: New Voices in the Music,” 169-71


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 4: A Rolling Stone,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 99-111 [Moodle]


February 9


Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 10: Fire from the Streets, 170-85

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Black (Music) is Beautiful” 171-75 and “Latino Rock ‘n’ Roll,” 175.


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Palmer, “Chapter 3: R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, 79-97 [Moodle]

Hamilton, Chapter 4: Being Good Isn’t Always Easy, Just Around Midnight, 169-212 [Moodle]

“Chapter 36: Aretha Franklin Meets the Mainstream,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 164-170 [Moodle]


February 12

Acid rock & the Counterculture

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 6 (excerpt): “Rock and Revolution: The Counterculture,” 181-96

Group 4:  Szatmary, Chapter 9: Acid Rock, 147-69


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Landau, “The Death of Janis Joplin,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 210-213 [Moodle]

Miller, Chapter 5, 260-70

Willis, “Janis Joplin,” The Essential Ellen Willis, 59-63 [Moodle]


February 14

Art Rock

ALL: Please select two of these three selections from Garofalo, Landau, and/or Brackett and be prepared to discuss them in class.


Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Creativity and Commerce: Rock as Art,” 203-11

Landau, “Rock and Art,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 129-134 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 48: The Aesthetics of Rock (all three pieces below must be read and count as one selection):

·         Williams, “Get Off of My Cloud,” 216-218 [Moodle]

·         Goldstein, “Pop Eye: Evaluating Media,” 218-220 [Moodle]

·         Willis, “Musical Events—Records: Rock, Etc.” 221-223 [Moodle]



Unit 4: The 1970s

February 16:

Soft(er) Rock

Group 1: Szatmary, Chapter 13: Escaping into the Seventies, 214-25

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Singer/Songwriters, Soft Rock, and More,” 218-224


Corporate rock/Album-Oriented Rock (AOR)

Christgau essay on Classic Rock:


Heavy metal, blues-rock, psychedelia, etc.

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 11: Guitar Heroes and Heavy Metal, 186-205

Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Mad with Power: Heavy Metal,” 234-42


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least TWO):

Hiwatt, “Chapter 23: Cock Rock: Men Always Seem to End up On Top,” The Rock History Reader, 125-129 [Moodle]

Christgau, “Trying to Understand the Eagles,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 265-269 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 20: Pop Gets Sophisticated Soft Rock,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, 178-189,


Stanley, “Chapter 45: American Rock (Ooh Yeah),” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!,400-408,


Willis, “Randy Newman,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 104-106 [Moodle]

Willis, “Women’s Music,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps, 142-145 [Moodle]

Brackett, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, “Chapter 60: Jazz Fusion,” 290-298 [Moodle]


February 19

Glam Rock

Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “All that Glitters Does Not Sell Gold,” 242-46

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 14: The Era of Excess, 226-45


Soft-Soul/Quiet Storm

Group 4: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 7 (excerpt): “Sweeter Soul Music,” 211-18

Group 4: Neal, Chapter 5: Postindustrial Soul, What the Music Said, 125-29 [Moodle]


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least two):

Christgau, “Bette Midler: The Art of Compassion,” Any Old Way You Choose It, 294-299 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Chapter 28: The Sound of Philadelphia: Soft Soul,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 250-259,


Willis, “Bowie’s Limitations,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 38-41 [Moodle]

Willis, “Believing Bette Midler, Mostly,” Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, 93-95 [Moodle]



February 21

Funk and Disco

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Disco: The Rhythm without the Blues,” 271-84

Group 1: Neal, Chapter 4: Soul for Real, What the Music Said, 112-24 [Moodle]



Group 2: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 8 (excerpt): “Punk: Rock as (White) Noise,” 250-71

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 15: Punk Rock and the New Generation, 246-71


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Kopkind, “The Dialectic of Disco,” Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 298-308, [Moodle]

Hajdu, “Chapter 10: Punk Versus Disco: Who Needs Love?” Love for Sale, 171-184 [Moodle]



February 23

Rock’s Epitaph?

Group 3: Gillett, “End of a Revolution,” (339-42) and “Goodnight America,” (401-411) The Sound of the City, 1970 and 1984 [Moodle]

Group 3: Landau, “The Cooling of America,” It’s Too Late to Stop Now, 213-216 [Moodle]

Group 4: Miller, Chapter 5, 270-277, 285-294

Group 4: Miller-Chapter 6: “Rock and Roll Future 10/75,” “Anarchy in the U. K. 12/2/76,” “My Way 8/16/77,” Epilogue: “No Future”


February 26

Class Visit from the DIVA Jazz Orchestra! (Website:

Discussion: Women in the performing arts and music


Unit 5: 1980s & 1990s

February 28

MTV era pop

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 9: Are We the World? Music Videos, Superstars, and Mega-Events, 285-316

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 17: I Want My MTV, 279-94


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Mahon, “Chapter 1: Reclaiming the Right to Rock,” Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Politics of Race, 1-32 [Moodle]

Nidel, “Introduction,” World Music: The Basics, 1-3 [Moodle]

Shuker, “U Got the Look: Film television and MTV,” Understanding Popular Music Culture, 147-159 [Moodle]

Stanley, “Just a King in Mirrors: Michael Jackson,”( 409-414) and “Highs in the Mid-Eighties: Prince and Madonna,” (415-422) Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Globalization and the Rise of World Music,” American Popular Music, 307-313 [Moodle]



March 2


Group 3: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 10 (excerpt): “Hip Hop, Don’t Stop,” 333-46

Group 4: Szatmary, Chapter 23: The Hip-Hop Nation, 350-71


MENU (Choose at least one):

Hajdu, “Chapter 12: Hip-Hop: Beats Want to Be Free,” Love for Sale, 197-209 [Moodle]

Pough, “Bringing the Wreck: Theorizing Race, Rap, Gender, and the Public Sphere,” Check it While You Wreck It, 15-40 [Moodle]

Powers, Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, Chapter 93: R&B Divas Go Retro, 494-498 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” excerpt American Popular Music, 270-289 [Moodle]

Worsley, “Loving Hip-Hop When It Denies Your Humanity,” Home Girls Make Some Noise, 274-299 [Moodle]


March 5

Modern rock/alternative music

Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “From Indie Scenes to Alternative Nation,” 370-80

Group 2: Szatmary, Chapter 21: The Generation X Blues, 322-41


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Cateforis and Humphreys, “Constructing Communities and Identities: Riot Grrrl in New York City,” Musics of Multicultural America, 317-42 [Moodle]

France, 1996, “Chapter 51: Feminism Amplified,” The Rock History Reader, 295-302 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Nevermind Already: Nirvana’s 20th Anniversary Boxset,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 143-145 [Moodle]

Starr and Waterman, “Alternate Currents,” American Popular Music, 291-300 [Moodle]



Unit 6: 2000-2010s

March 7


Group 1: Garofalo & Waksman, Chapter 11 (excerpt): “Country into Pop”; “The Latin Boom and Beyond”; “Black Music at the Base,” 381-406

Group 2: Stanley, “Chapter 59: A Vision of Love: R&B,” Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 536-546 [Moodle]

Group 3: Szatmary, Chapter 22: Post-Grunge Party, 342-49


Reader’s Choice: Please read one of the readings listed above.


March 9

2000s and Beyond

Group 1: Garofalo, Chapter 12: Changing Channels: Music and Media in the New Millennium, 417-64


Reader’s Choice Menu (Choose at least one):

Brooks, “Amy Winehouse and the (Black) Art of Appropriation,” September 28, 2008, The Nation:

Hajdu, “Chapter 13: Digitization: The Immaterial World,” Love for Sale, 212-235 [Moodle]

Hopper, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t,” The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, 15-20 [Moodle] 

Sanneh, “Chapter 59: The Rock Against Rockism,” The Rock History Reader, 351-354 [Moodle]

Powers, “All the Single Cyborgs,” 312-326, and “Epilogue,” 343-349, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music [Moodle]




Raves & Faves: The Best of 2017

In a cluttered media landscape Riffs, Beats, & Codas does the hard work for our readers by selecting some of the outstanding popular culture offerings of 2017. You are welcome ;-) Covering music, literature, television, and film (briefly), I hope some of my selections inspire you to explore. As always, I conclude with a list some of the notable musicians who have died this year.


Philadelphia based musician Son Little continues defying genre and expectation on his second full length album New Magic. Though Little exists nominally on the contemporary soul and electric blues spectrum, he is an incredibly resourceful musician who employs everything from surf guitar to choral chants to tell a fascinating range of stories. Humorous, literate, and sensuous, New Magic is rife with lyrical and sonic intrigue. Check out the video for the song "Blue Magic" below:


Somi, a Nigerian born jazz-oriented vocalist and songwriter based in New York, soars on Petite Afrique an endearingly personal and poignant collection of original songs. At the outset, on "Alien" she writes from the leans of an “African in New York” who feels eternally alienated from her surroundings. Among her most memorable moments are her impressionistic portrait of intracultural policing on “Black Enough,” and a subtle, incisive depiction of gentrification of "The Gentry." Rich in textures and tones, her lovely voice anchors this ambitious meditation. Learn more about the album's creation below:



Jazzmeia Horn received a thorough music education at the Manhattan School of Music and achieved consistent acclaim at various jazz competitions before releasing her stirring debut A Social Call. She draws her technique and repertoire from various strands of jazz, soul, and gospel, and nods to current social issues. The result is a truly relevant, aptly named portrait of a talented and conscientious young artist with chops, brains, and imagination. Meet the artist in this "trailer" for her album:


Memphis is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s loving homage to her hometown, which is better known as a hub for R&B and gospel than her métier jazz. Bridgewater is a highly versatile and expressive singer who is quite comfortable with R&B whether it be from Stax, Hi Records, or the electric blues tradition. Her reedy voice and supple phrasing are a great fit for her Hi Records style version of “I Can’t Get Next to You” and her version of “Thrill is Gone.” The best cut may be her stirring rendition of the gospel song “Take My Hand Precious Lord” where she is ably backed by a superb choir. Learn more about Bridgewater's journey making the album below:


Lizz Wright’s smoldering vocal sound is so lovely and measured; she can sometimes lapse into making mood music rather than compelling recordings. Her newest, Grace, represents an advance in her sound. Though she favors moody, minor key ballads she has selected a strong set. Though her vocal approach rarely varies, k.d. lang’s “Wash Me Clean,” Allen Toussaint’s “Southern Nights,” and Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” draw out her strongest performances and make one of her more memorable albums in years.



Cecile McLorin Salvant is the freshest and most acclaimed new voice in jazz since Gregory Porter’s debut. She has a lovely with a rainbow of colors, of which she has complete control. She is very comfortable and confident stretching her voice in multiple directions and always stays on pitch. She also possesses a strong rhythmic sense, a respect for melody, and genuine comedic flair. Many of these skills are on full display on her double album Dreams and Daggers. It is unusual in its blend of studio cuts, live recordings from a series of Village Vanguard concerts, and several pieces with strings. A bit jarring, but she sounds very solid throughout. Thematically, it traces the glories and tortures of female romanticism. Alongside dreamy standards like “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” and “You’re My Thrill” are raunchy classic blues, and tongue-in-cheek songs, mostly composed by Salvant. Though a few of the songs are uneven, overall Salvant is carving out an identity as a jazz singer willing to take risks. She has a winning sense of humor and the chops to write, modernize the blues, and deliver in concert. McLorin Salvant discusses the album below on the TV program The Open Mind:


Paula Cole’s mid-1990s stardom was memorable, especially her intriguing satire “Where Have all the Cowboys Gone,” but her musical roots were actually in jazz. She studied jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music. Professionally, Cole has concentrated on singer-songwriter music for most of her career, which may distort the scope of her talents. However, her occasional interpretations of standards on other artists’ albums and some of the writing on her albums of the 2000s and 2010s indicated the jazz aspect her talents. On Ballads Cole is a very convincing interpreter of an impressive range of material including Bob Dylan, Bobbie Gentry, and songs drawn from the pre-rock songbook. Doing double duty as a vocalist and pianist, she is a steady and assured anchor who gives songs as disparate as “Naima,” “Body and Soul,” and “Ode to Billie Joe” her own flavor.



Books about music

Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan by Elaine M. Hayes

Elaine Hayes’s biography of Sarah Vaughan is a detailed, crisp and clearly organized portrait of the life and artistry of the great Vaughan. Hayes approaches her unique melding of jazz and classical elements into a distinctive style, and places her career in the context of the postwar pop and jazz industry. She also provides valuable social insights into Vaughan’s navigation of the era’s racial and gender politics. Easily one of the finest biographical portraits of a black female musician as a complex artist and a person.

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Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz by Fred Hersch

 Acclaimed jazz pianist Fred Hersch is adept on a variety of keyboards, as his accomplished memoir illustrates. Hersch details how his childhood love of music, fed by a strong sense of personal drive and discipline, resulted in a full time career as a jazz musician, composer, and teacher. As his career developed, he gained confidence in his identity as an openly gay man, in a homophobic society, and as a person living with HIV/AIDS. Hersch shares a wealth of insightful stories about life as a contemporary jazz musician, and details multiple health challenges that disturbed his momentum at times, but failed to deter his progress as a creative artist and as a person.

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Beyond MUSIC media favorites


Lonesome Lies Before Us by Don Lee

 Don Lee uses the life of a nearly famous alt country singer songwriter struggling to say afloat financially and medically, to illustrate important questions about art, life, and spirituality. Returning to the fictional Rosarita Bay setting he employs in his books occasionally, he depicts a small community, beset by financial issues, struggling to survive on the literal level and striving to find meaning in lives littered by disappointment. As per usual, Lee’s crisp prose and deft storytelling lure you into a compellingly familiar fictional world.

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

 Celeste Ng’s second novel is a genuine page-turner about class conflict in Shaker Heights circa the mid-1990s. An artist and her daughter rent an apartment from a well-heeled seemingly progressive white family. The daughter grows increasingly closer to the family’s idyllic life; her mother, who eventually works for the family, becomes increasingly concerned about these bonds. Both are accustomed to a nomadic existence dictated by her mother’s profession. Just as they appear to fall into a stable life routine, a wealth of secrets about the mother spills forth, resulting in fractures, misperceptions, and suburban dramas that seismically displace the semblance of stability.

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Beyond Respectability: The intellectual Thought of Race Women by Brittany Cooper

Black feminist scholar Brittany Cooper foregoes the flatly historical encyclopedic accounts of black female writers Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, Fannie Barrier Williams, Pauli Murray, and Toni Cade Bambara by focusing on their intellectual work as philosophies. Cooper masterfully synthesizes their ideas about social progress into functioning social and political ideas that influenced their respective eras. Informing her analysis is explicit attention to the intersectional work they were performing before this concept was more widely known in academic circles, and offering a nuanced critique of how respectability politics has operated historically and contemporarily.  Her writing opens a door for continued exploration of the intellectual output of overlooked figures.  

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 Essay collection

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxanne Gay

Nothing I read this year inspired me to discuss its contents with as many people as Roxane Gay’s Hunger, a memoir of her body detailing her struggles with weight, trauma, and familial and societal pressures. Gay is known for her honesty and bluntness, and her voice is relentless here. In a series of short, mostly captivating vignettes she eloquently reveals the tense hypervisibility and invisibility of being a large, tall black woman navigating a history of sexual trauma in a cruel culture. Gay’s perspective demands your attention and constantly illuminates experiences that implicates us all.

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 Music on TV

She’s Gotta Have It (The Series)


 Spike Lee’s reboot of his 1987 film She’s Gotta Have It into a Netflix series is a superb character study of a black female artist navigating love and sex, friendships, an ever gentrifying Brooklyn, and the eternal struggle of making a living as an artist. Music is a prominent character in each episode. In addition to serving as counterpoint in specific scenes, the source albums get their own screenshot. The series deftly employs a range of artists from Frank Sinatra to Sade to Floetry. The season ending group dance to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” is one of the inspired moments of the 2017 season. Check out Popsugar's link to songs featured throughout the series:

 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Seasons 2 & 3)

CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, starring actress and co-creator Rachel Bloom, is not only the finest musical sitcom on television, but the only one technically. This uniqueness spares other series from having to compete; its continually inspired depiction of love, obsession, insecurity, and neurosis, under the veneer of musical comedy, is incomparable. As the seasons delve more deeply into main character Rebecca Bunch’s complicated psyche, the series continues to present smart, funny, and formally brilliant songs that amplify key moments. From Season Two’s jazzy opening theme “I’m Just a Girl in Love,” which borders on the cute and creepy , to the gleefully goofy duet “We Tapped That Ass” (complemented by a dance routine), the songs flesh out an inspired and evolving concept. Season Three’s ongoing journey through Rebecca’s complicated past continue to unpeel the layers in convincing dramatic, comedic and musical fashion.  

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 Music on Film


 In Disney-Pixar’s Coco, a young man struggles to adhere to his loyalty to family and his passion for music. Plotwise, a celebration of Dia de los Muertos opens up a (literal) portal to understanding the authentic roots of his family through convening with the dead but not forgotten. Though it is primarily a narrative animated film, music is central to the story’s narrative arc most notably the gorgeous “Remember Me” sung by multiple characters.  Coco is a funny, touching, smart film, and is notable for engaging genuinely with Mexican culture and featuring a Latinx cast.    

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 Notable 2017 Musician Deaths (A Selective List):

Greg Allman (Southern rock singer-songwriter)

Chester Bennington (lead singer of Linkin Park)

Chuck Berry (rock 'n' roll singer-songwriter)


David Cassidy (teen pop singer and actor)

Chris Cornell (rock singer-songwriter and lead singer of Soundgarden)


Fats Domino (rock 'n' roll/R&B  vocalist, pianist and bandleader)


Al Jarreau (jazz, R&B, and pop vocalist)


Tom Petty (rock singer-songwriter and bandleader)


Prodigy (rapper in Mobb Deep)

Della Reese (vocalist, actress, and pastor)


Grady Tate (jazz drummer and vocalist)


Mel Tillis (country singer-songwriter)

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LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 2)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 2! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress. Check out last month's blog for Part 1's discussion of Barbra Streisand, Cleo Laine, and Diane Schuur.


 1968's  Eli & the Thirteenth Confession  is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

1968's Eli & the Thirteenth Confession is one of Nyro's earliest masterpieces.

When I started listening to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro in college I began with her cover album of ‘50s doo-wop and ’60 soul music with LaBelle 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle. I was so enchanted that I bought her first three albums of original material immediately afterward.  Her urgent, wailing sound felt like something I had been craving for years without realizing it. Sadly, around the time I started immersing myself in her serpentine melodies and impressionistic lyrics, she died. At the very least, some trickles of recognition emerged including Time and Love, a tribute to Nyro featuring an array of female admirers, was released with her blessing, and a double disc compilation. Though many people know songs like “Stoney End,” “Time and Love,” and “Stone Soul Picnic,” most people I knew were unfamiliar with her as an artist.

The music industry and critical establishment tend to spotlight a few artists to represent certain genres, and for female singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell emerged as the quintessential singer-songwriter, for achieving both acclaim and commercial success. They applied the same lens to Carole King and Carly Simon, but Nyro is the least commercially successful of all of them even if she is the most original. She was also the most controversial. Nyro has a piercing, full-bodied singing style that many people hear as overwhelming and shrill. Some critics have extended this interpretation of her sound to her music, which has been viewed as pretentious and self-serious.

 Critics are not the primary variable shaping the popularity of singers, but they are tastemakers whose voices partially shaped the late 1960s and informs rock histories and canon making venues like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Nyro finally received a biography in 2002 via Michele Kort’s excellent Soul Picnic, many of her more obscure albums have been remastered and re-released, in 2012 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her (finally), and jazz-pianist Billy Childs released 2014’s well-regarded album of Nyro songs Map to the Treasure which won a Vocal Jazz Grammy.

 Despite these accolades, Nyro remains a kind of shadow figure; it is painful that her only “hit” as an artist was a moderately popular cover of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof.” Granted, it is a lovely version, but it hardly tells her story. The Mitchell of the 1960s sings in a delicate soprano borrowed from singers like Mary Travers and Judy Collins that is instantly recognizable as a young feminine folk voice. Nyro has a heartier and more seasoned voice that sounds more overtly “white ethnic” but it is hard to place. She borrows more devices and phrasings from R&B but there is something dark, gothic, and sensual about her voice that is not purely traditional soul music but is far tougher and streetwise than folk. I frequently joke with my friends that I have never put Nyro songs on a mix with other singers because when I listen to her I only want to listen to her because for me she constitutes her own genre. Barbra Streisand’s most successful entrée into modern pop was her 1971 hit cover of Nyro’s “Stoney End.” Besides being born Jewish women (Nyro was part Jewish) in New York (Nyro is from the Bronx, Streisand is from Brooklyn), they have few similarities, but critically they are innovative voices whose distinctions from their predecessors was a source of acclaim and disdain.

Just as Streisand was not a Doris Day clone, Nyro was not a compliant polite folkie. She was willing to write about, sex, drugs, mortality, and urban life unfiltered. There is something jarring and disruptive about Nyro, especially if one grew up listening to the polite and highly polished pop music of the early to mid-1960s, like Connie Francis, Joanie Somers, and Andy Williams Vocally she is fearless, unfettered and somewhat wild in her approach to melody and dynamics. As such she is incredibly freeing to listen to; she disrupts almost any conventional notion of pop singing and the unorthodox shape of her songs matches. 1967’s More Than a New Discovery stands out, but Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry push her into even more dynamic and unpredictable vocal twists. Hers is a wholly original sound that needed to be heard. Beyond the sonic qualities were the stories she told about female emotional intimacy and sensuality, and her broader philosophical observations evident on songs like “Poverty Train” and “Time and Love.”  She made it OK for female songwriters to write in code, just as Dylan did years earlier, and like Dylan, she had an unconventional sense of sound and structure. Whereas Dylan’s innovations grabbed attention relatively early in his career, Nyro remains a thrilling discovery.


 Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

Jennifer Holliday singing live in concert.

In a 1998 appearance on The Rosie O’Donnell Show Tony Award winning actor Jennifer Holliday relayed how Ethel Merman told her she would have to tone down her voice to make it on Broadway. The irony of Merman telling another singer to sing more subtly is fairly ridiculous, but Holliday did not object overtly, she simply stayed true to the dynamic style she introduced to audiences Your Arm’s too Short to Box with God which propelled her to award-winning stardom as Effie White in Dreamgirls on Broadway. Her signature “And I Am Telling you I’m Not Going” is more than a torch song: it is a gut wrenching inferno. Singing in an almost guttural style, Holliday sang the song four years in a row and solidified herself as one of the greatest finds in musical theater since Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Stephanie Mills. In addition to receiving the Tony Award, she won a Grammy for the pop version, which exposed people without access to Broadway to a vocal style unmatched in intensity. Holliday’s bravura performance of the song, as well as “I Am Changing,” drew from the stylistic well of gospel, musical theatre, and torch song, and ultimately made her one of the decade’s most promising new star. Poised for success she never reached the heights of previous Broadway-cum-pop star predecessors.

 In the early 1980s, the music industry was as racially bifurcated as it had ever been with black singers confined to quiet storm ballads and funk and whites to soft rock and rock with few overlaps. The notion of a “black Streisand” was less than tenable, so rather than relying on Broadway material her Geffen debut featured a mix of relative “radio friendly” songs like the ballad “I Am Love” (an R&B hit) and the dance cut “Just Let Me Wait.” Her follow-up repeated this approach of targeting the neo-disco and adult soul markets. Unlike white Broadway predecessors like Streisand, Holliday needed to cross over from the black market to reach the pop audience and none of her songs performed at this level commercially. Holliday switched from Geffen Records to Arista Records in the early 1990s, but this did not change her fortunes significantly and she has remained a mostly independent recording artist. Sunset Boulevard’s aging, delusional fading silent film actress Norma Desmond believed she was not a successful actress because “the pictures got smaller,” rather than her talents. In Holliday’s case, the situation was the inverse: At the peak of her talents the industry got smaller, increasing the gap between black and white music, and reducing the space for singers with large voices to fit into an increasingly electronic musical landscape. The rise of MTV also increased racial segregation and a byproduct was the erasure and silencing of full-sized black female physiques like Holliday’s body. Though black women’s musicality was integral to the soul music that influenced ‘80s MTV pop stars like Annie Lennox and George Michael few black women had a prominent role on the channel.

Holliday’s talents were too big for the industry; she defied the industry’s emerging new standards and outside of Broadway found limited success in film, television or other arenas during the mid-to-late 1980s. Holliday has reflected on her struggles with weight, depression, and romance. I would imagine the failure of the industry to respond to the scope of her talents may have informed these struggles. In the mid-1990s, Holliday began appearing on television, including a recurring role on Ally McBeal, and in the early 2000s, she was back on Broadway and the dance charts. She has also released albums of gospel songs and standards, and benefited from some of the renewed attention to Dreamgirls that accompanied the 2007 film. These moments indicate clear awareness of her gifts within the industry, but she deserves a sustainable vehicle for her art.  In 2002, I saw her perform in concert in Washington D.C. and was awed by her talent, which included fine performances of the songs of Patsy Cline and Ella Fitzgerald, respectively, as well as her signature showtunes. Holliday, who was only born in 1960, still appears to be performing at her peak, and deserves to be seen and heard.


 A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in  The Bodyguard .

A still photo from Whitney Houston's performance in The Bodyguard.

Whitney Houston is one of the most misunderstood pop music icons because our society provided limited space for someone in her position to be understood. As a young black woman who debuted in the mid-1980s, audiences probably expected her to sing funk in the vein of Chaka Khan and Teena Marie, and/or gospel inflected music like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. Though hardly rebellious, Houston defied these racial and gender expectations. Houston’s energetic performances of dance tunes and sultry ballad interpretations indicated a vast aural sensibility. You hear elements of gospel in her voice, but there are also elements of Streisand style belting, Ross like drama, with traces of funk and disco, but ultimately no surrender to a singular sound. Houston does not sound stereotypically “white” or “black.” She sounds multiculturally black, meaning she is grounded in some familiar black idioms and able to illustrate how rich the palette of black music is in actuality.

Tellingly, before her album debuted she sang a version of Home on The Merv Griffin Show. Stephanie Mills originated “Home” in the original production of The Wiz and part of its innovation was its fusion of gospel elements with the control and showmanship of Broadway. The Broadway soul element is a deeply important texture of Houston’s music that a lot of music critics, steeped rock and soul music, miss and fail to appreciate in Houston’s music. Though reviewers always recognized the beauty of her voice, they have always fought the idea that black singers have something more to offer than the most obvious variations on the sound popularized by Franklin. This limits the room for other kinds of black vocal expression, thus by her second album (1987’s Whitney) Houston was maligned critically for making crossover pop (for white people) rather than some notion of  “authentic” black music. The only way such a notion is tenable is if you hold the essentialist view that black expression is finite and exhausted of possibility.

The notion that she was failing her people aesthetically, and by virtue politically, undoubtedly led her to record the rather muddled and unsatisfying album I’m Your Baby Tonight. In an effort to connect more deeply with urban black pop she collaborated with the urban L.A. funk brain trust of Babyface and L.A. Reid on multiple songs. The New Jack Swing title track was a big pop and R&B hit, but none of the other dance cuts made an impact. The album’s most successful cut was its most Houston-traditional: Her rendition of Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore’s anthemic “All the Man that I Need” produced by Narada Michael Walden, a black producer who shepherded most of her biggest hits previously.  Even working with Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder failed to produce magic. The set is a downturn in her career, but she reversed her fortune with the most natural fit: the soundtrack to the soapy melodrama The Bodyguard.  After years of occasional acting cameos and a career of Broadway soul style singing the film’s music provided an appropriate context for her singing, which reached astronomical vocal heights on her propulsive version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” and suitably dramatic original songs “Run to You” and “I Have Nothing.” The album’s triumph featured some of her best singing, and set the stage for her similarly accomplished performances on the Waiting to Exhale and Preacher’s Wife soundtracks. Paralleling these triumphs were well-covered personal struggles in her marriage to Bobby Brown and drug addiction that derailed her career transforming her from a formidable voice to a caricature.

1998’s My Love is Your Love, her last great recording, was an agreeable fusion of  her “classic” Broadway soul approach with more contemporary rhythms provided by hip-hop and R&B producers. Her voice was slightly more seasoned and her range was smaller but she still had an appealing sound. The album was her last consistent success, spawning several hits and winning her awards and such, but it was a swan song in many regards. She finally achieved R&B credibility, for what it was worth, but she had already shown herself to be both within and beyond R&B confines.

Critics ultimately have limited access to a singer’s psyche and personal demons. Arguably, the pressure to balance commercial crossover ambitions and to appeal to black audiences was an artificial pressure she inherited and navigated gracefully for many years before it seems to have consumed her. We still struggle to envision female artists beyond the cartoonish “girl next door” and” bad girl” tropes which can leave female artists stranded between being themselves and trying to acquiesce to expectations. Music critics are not responsible for Houston’s death but the faux binaries they employed did not honor her artistic life.


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Mariah Carey has always stood apart musically and professionally from most female pop singer-songwriters of her generation, yet critics constantly try to frame her in generic diva terms which diminishes her accomplishments. In 1990, when Carey debuted, videogenic singers with modest voices, like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, and Madonna, defined mainstream pop.  The primary exception was Whitney Houston whose powerful belting fused dulcet tones with gospel fervor on songs ranging from the fluff of “How Will I Know” to the rafter rattling angst of “Didn’t We Almost Have it All.” In between these extremes were solid singers like Taylor Dayne, Gloria Estefan, Karyn White, and Vanessa Williams, who also had slices of the commercial pop diva pie.

Though some parallels existed between Carey and these singers, including the emphasis on either dance-pop or romantic ballads in her repertory, she stood apart. Her voice had a top range that exceeded even the pop coloratura flights of Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams. Her technique, particularly her command of melisma conveyed an authority to her songs that bellied her age. The fact that Carey co-wrote and arranged her songs, was atypical, as was her production credit on the album’s most unique cut, “Vanishing” featuring just voice and piano. “Prisoner” which featured Carey rapping verses to a faithless lover, years before hip-hop soul queens like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill premiered was also a key track buried within the album. In short, she seemed like another diva but a closer look revealed a wider range of colors to her musicality. After her debut grabbed critics’ attention, sold well and won her awards a backlash ensued with her follow-up Emotions. Featuring dance pop co-produced with Cole & Clivilés (the architects of C+C Music Factory) and ballads with a 1960s soul flair, she became a critical target. Suddenly, she was accused of being bombastic, writing “schoolgirl” diary lyrics, and being the result of marketing hype. Her 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged surprised many people who witnessed her live vocal mettle and had to concede that she was an excellent singer and commanding performer, not a studio concoction. The performance was released as an EP on the strength of her excellent interpretation of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” featuring call and response vocals from Trey Lorenz. This incredibly tender song could sink into saccharine mush in the wrong hands, or collapse under the weight of over singing, but she and Lorenz honor the original while singing with their own flair. I can think of no comparable singer who could have done this better. 1993’s Music Box found her garnering praise for employing her sensuous lower range more prominently, but some critics balked at generic lyrics, while others felt she downplayed her usual dynamism too much allowing the melodies to carry the day too prominently.

Three years and four albums in her critical profile remained confusing. She was either too over the top or not dynamic enough, and though she persisted in writing, producing and arranging her material and demonstrated genuine interpretive skill, she remained framed as a product of marketing. Her 1993 marriage to Sony’s CEO probably did not help with these perceptions. Critics also faulted her for being inaccessible and seemed poised to unmask her when her first tour began with an underwhelming performance in Miami. Carey was apparently a quick study, for her remaining dates impressed critics with her vocal poise and personable stage presence.

1994’s Merry Christmas elicited predictably mixed responses but the rousing closer “Jesus Oh What Wonderful Child” was a gospel masterpiece and “All I Want for Christmas is You” became an instant holiday standard. Carey’s turning point was 1995’s Daydream where she fused a range of musical interests in romantic pop ballads, ‘70s soul, 90s hip-hop, disco, and funk into a mini-masterpiece. She modernized her sound and image and won over new listeners, including critics, with an irresistible fusion of pop and urban music, a path she has pursued successfully since, most notable on 1997’s Butterfly, 2005’s The Emancipation of Mimi and 2008’s E=MC2. Because the press has turned its attention to her physical appearance, relationships, and alleged diva behavior younger audiences mistakenly view her as a quirky celebrity diva. Her best music is some of the most accomplished and influential pop music of the last 30 years. Carey’s career is uneven in spots, but she is a distinctive vocal artist not merely a generic diva.



LOUD WOMEN: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop (Part 1)

Dear Riffs, Beats & Codas readers: I am drafting a new writing project called LOUD Women: Portraits of disruptive women in American pop. For many years, I have been drawn to female vocalists who are perceived as shrill, over-the-top and overly dramatic. I decided to interrogate the meaning of this notion in a series of vignettes. Please enjoy Part 1. Part 2 is coming in November! I would love your feedback on this work-in-progress.

Diane Schuur's Big Beautiful Mouth

Diane Schuur has a big, beautiful mouth, capable of buoyant swing, raunchy blues, stirring gospel, and silken ballads and this scares many people, especially music critics. When she emerged in the 1980s as the latest vocal jazz star few critics knew how to assess her properly because she had no direct precedent. The jazz goddesses who preceded her always had a blind spot that stood out precisely because they were so proficient in other arenas. Ella and Sarah’s indisputably beautiful sonic qualities and almost super human improvisational genius offset their ability inability to sing the blues convincingly. Dinah Washington’s confident mastery of the blues and exemplary musicianship were so potent it made it easy for her to passively blend in or blithely sing over bland arrangements, especially in her final years. Carmen McRae’s sharpness distinguished her but it eventually lapsed into a wryness that sometimes undercut the vulnerability of her material. Billie Holiday’s dark history and the physical effects of drug abuse sometimes made it difficult for audiences to hear her skillful musicianship rather than the poignancy of vulnerability. Betty Carter’s radical deconstructions were impressive feats of improvisation that sometimes stretched songs beyond recognition. A swinging interpreter like Maxine Sullivan was sometimes so low key in her laidback approach she could seem emotionally detached.

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I mention these figures because Schuur has a lesser critical profile, but is worthy of being mentioned with these legends. Schuur has a beautiful voice full of color, range, and flexibility. As a pianist and vocalist, she clearly understands the musical demands of her material. She is also a highly versatile singer comfortable singing romantic ballads, swing tunes, torch songs, Brazilian pop and blues oriented material. None of these qualities is especially controversial but what sets her apart is that she isnot “cool.” Schuur has an exuberant, infectious energy that crackles in concert especially in her absorption of gospel music. Schuur can tap into an almost otherworldly passion in her music that evokes greats like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. She, more than any jazz vocalist of her generation, exemplifies the notion of jazz as a form of soul music. Some of her most outstanding performances, including her interpretations of staples from the black pop music canon like “Amazing Grace,” “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” and a live version of Franklin’s “Climbing Higher Mountains,” exhibit a simultaneous command of gospel, blues, and R&B virtually unmatched by any singer of her generation.

Audiences have always reacted enthusiastically to her style but critics have dismissed her powerful style as shrill, over the top, and unsubtle.  Some even reframed her as a (mere) “pop” singer with jazz overtones rather than a true jazz singer. These kinds of responses reveal a deeply ingrained bias that women in jazz need to stay quiet and emotionally contained (e.g. the “cool” style of singers like Peggy Lee) or display a kind of athletic virtuosity (e.g. Carter). Both adhere to troubling patriarchal notions. Male critics often praise “cool” singers like June Christy, Chris Connor, Peggy Lee, Julie London, and Jo Stafford for being understated a rather coded term that often seems like shorthand for their ability to reign in an implied female emotionalism that makes critics uncomfortable. The inverse approach praises women for adhering to a highly prized form of overt improvisation critics tend to prize among male instrumentalists. In both instances, critics affirm vocalists who conform to narrow modes of expression.

I appreciate Schuur because she is disruptive. My Schuur conversion moment came in 1999 when she sang a stirring version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” during a live tribute to Wonder at the Kennedy Center. She rearranges the song entirely beginning in an acapella arrangement (backed by Take 6) and building toward a spine tingling climax laced with jazz and gospel inflections. A truly gifted and resourceful interpreter, she takes an ordinary pop song and uses a highly personal set of musical tools to get to the heart of the lyric and illuminate its musical contours. Her musical choices elevate the song into something more beautiful and resonant than ever and does so by balancing emotional intelligence with improvisation, while remaining true to herself and the song.

Cleo Laine: Out of this World

Cleo Laine, a jazz-oriented singer of English and Jamaican heritage, captures you instantly with her colorful and flexible vocal instrument, and penchant for drama. She is not just a gifted singer, but a really compelling presence. Never just a vocalist, she gained fame in England singing big band jazz, setting Shakespeare sonnets to music, and performing in musical theatre. While it is true that she first crossed over in the United States through a highly successful series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1973 (released on 1974, 1976, 1985 and 20001 sets), her studio recordings from 1985-1995 interest me most. They solidify her as one of the more gifted and eclectic singers to emerge in the jazz field, yet she is strangely underrated. As a vocalist, actress, and performer she has never approached her music from a commercial pop or strictly jazz virtuosic improvisational perspective, nor confined her style to a musical theater based approach. Failing to fall easily into these categories speaks more to what makes her interesting than her limitations but critics have tended to praise her sound but dismiss her as too bombastic, stylized, and over the top. When Laine gets excited, she punctuates her renditions with coloratura style trills that amplify the emotion. She and her husband and bandleader saxophonist John Dankworth also performed note-perfect unison scats. Some people heard this as a gimmick; my rejoinder is that she uses this sparingly, and more importantly, I question why she must repress this aspect of her range? Why is trilling less expressive or sincere than other modes? Like Diane Schuur she does many things well and has few precedents, which makes her difficult to classify and easy to condemn. Similarly, her exuberance defies the edict that jazz women would either stay cool or perform radical deconstructions.


Each Laine album from the 1984-95 period offers an interesting facet of her vocal persona. That Old Feeling is a sublime ballads album featuring voice and piano with occasional bass. She scales down her luminous voice to the setting and delivers consistently lovely intimate performances of popular standards. It is comparable to similar sets by Ella Fitzgerald (with Ellis Larkins and Paul Smith) and Tony Bennett (with Bill Evans). 1988 Cleo Sings Sondheim is one of the best showcases of his work in a more jazz-oriented context. Beyond perennials like “Send in the Clowns,” she does justice to “Ah But Underneath,” done in a brassy big band arrangement, perfectly capture the tension of “I’m Calm,” and masters “I’m Still Here.” She follows this fusion of Broadway and jazz on 1989’s Woman to Woman comprised exclusively of songs written by women. This was one of the first collections with this theme and she excels on a broad range of material composed by writers as disparate as Carol Bayer Sager, Billie Holiday and Flora Purim. While there is a jazz element, especially her sizzling take on “Fine and Mellow,” the set showcases a range of smart, melodic popular songs with an adult sensibility. In essence “good music” is not confined to jazz.

1991’s Jazz, featuring luminaires like Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan, and Toots Thielemans, has my favorite version of Ellington’s “Just a Sittin and a Rockin’” in an exquisite duet with trumpeter Clark Terry, as well as fresh renditions of contemporary standards like “I Told you So” and a funky versionof “Lady Be Good” that somehow works. Some people think her brassy “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is too much; I hear a fine showcase for all the musicians involved. Blue and Sentimental from 1994 features yet another new standard in Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men,” gets down and dirty on “Love Me” and “Soft Pedal Blues,” and generates serious heat on two superb duets with Joe Williams, including a sultry blues “A Cryin’ Shame” and a definitive rendition of Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.” Though she has sung Ellington on multiple occasions 1995’s Solitude, performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra is one of her finest swing showcases. She and the Orchestra harmonize flawlessly on Shakespeare’s “Take All My Loves,” gallop through “Rocking in Rhythm” confidently, and simmer on the Adelaide Hall classic “Creole Love Call” both featuring smart lyrics by Lorraine Feather. I also enjoy her highly personal take on Ellington and Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” retitled “Cleo’s A Train” which interpolates melodies from multiple Ellington standards into the song’s melodic framework. Laine the balladeer, musical theatre actress, pop song interpreter, blues interpreter, and swinger, emerges in a variety of settings.  These recordings represent some of the finest vocal artistry of their period and defy any singular characterization of Laine. Her artistry is comparable to legendary jazz divas for the rawness of her talent and her singularity.

Barbra Streisand: Reclaiming her legend

Barbra Streisand is the most successful and accomplished vocalist to emerge from the early 1960s and remain relevant. She is also divisive because she is loud, disruptive, and unceasing in her ambition. Though it has been over 20 years since she had a radio hit, her albums regularly top the charts. On average, the self-proclaimed “actress who sings” from Brooklyn, who is in her early 70s as I write this, sells more albums than younger, trendier, and more aggressively marketed acts.

BSAlbum cover.jpg

 Streisand’s legendary endurance is indisputable, but her critical reputation has always been fraught. Writers have frequently devoted more time evaluating her appearance, her psyche, and rumors about her behavior, than her artistry, which as a singer, actress, director, and producer, is formidable across multiple mediums. Musically, Streisand is important for disrupting the polite, demure, and emotionally repressed female pop that immediately preceded her and simultaneously forcing cabaret music to grow up.  Most of the hits that singers like Patti Page, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford popularized in the 1950s were either agreeable romantic ballads or cheesy novelty songs that belied their age and intelligence. Coming out of the big band era, they did not begin their recording careers thinking in terms of albums, but rather in “sides” (singles) thus they are more famous for individual songs than albums.

Streisand, comparatively, debuted in 1963 and her album gained significant critical and commercial attention. Rather than wowing you with double tracked vocals, winning you over with perky optimism, or fading into the background Streisand stood out. The wounded lover performance she delivers in “Cry Me a River” (where she belts “Come on! Come on”!) obliterates Julie London’s placid original performance. Similarly, the way she transforms “Happy Days are Here Again” from a cheery anthem into a dramatic ironic ballad of yearning is genius. In these two songs, she turned mainstream female pop singing on its ear demonstrating that female pop singers could make music that was powerful, subtle, and ironic and still sell. Her debut was a hit and won her the Album of the Year Grammy, one of eight she eventually received.

Streisand’s recording career paralleled her successful run on Broadway, which led to innovative TV specials, and a successful film career. In the musical theatre Streisand’s approach in I Can Get it for You Wholesale and Funny Girl were triumphant performances that provided an alternative toning down the sometimes literal histrionics of Ethel Merman. Though Judy Garland certainly influenced Streisand, she also managed to add some bite to Garland’s stylized vulnerability. Streisand was tough and modern; she secured creative control of her music and her actions suggest that she realized that women could not adhere to the old entertainment scripts of the 1940s and 1950s. Looking back it is not surprising that she emerged in the era of Sex and the Single Girl and The Feminine Mystique because her professional instincts and expressive choices are of a piece with these paradigm shifters.  Streisand’s highly modern feminine expression sustained her through the late 1960s. Though she defied her generation by not singing rock material initially, her ability to push certain elements of pre-rock culture in new directions was innovative making her as radical and enduring as any of the women who gained fame singing soul and acid rock. Though some of her attempts to modernize her sound in the 1970s were clumsy, Streisand singing Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Carole King, and Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs was more convincing than most of the attempts by pop, cabaret, and jazz singers trying to stay current. Further, Streisand originated several enduring standards from the 1970s including “The Way We Were” and “Evergreen,” something few interpretive singers accomplished at the time.

If the 1960s and 1970s were her most innovative and influential eras, she still managed to make impressive forays into post-disco pop (1980’s Guilty), modernize classic and contemporary Broadway songs, and bring a little class to the soft rock/adult contemporary field from the 1980s onward. She accomplished these while venturing into directing and producing films (Yentl, Prince of Tides, The Mirror Has Two Faces), staging acclaimed concerts, and producing successful TV concert specials.  Streisand’s individual ambitions have given her an enduring career, and inspired other artists including those of her generation, such as Diana Ross, and younger singers like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton.  There are generations of aspiring actors, singers, and perhaps director/producers, who view Streisand as a model, and she seems poised to remain the kind of performer younger audiences will continue to discover and share.


Hands off our music! Notes on authenticity, belonging, and cultural appropriation in music of the digital age

In 2001, the late jazz critic Joel E. Siegel reviewed a new Billie Holiday boxed set issued by Columbia Records in the November 9 issue of the Washington City Paper. While he praised the music effusively, he objected to literary critic Farah Jasmine Griffin’s essay on representations of Holiday in literature featured in the liner notes, “Literary Holiday”. The source of his ire was his belief that her argument was  too narrowly derived from identity politics, “Filled with the buzzwords of academic race and gender analyses—Holiday is referred to as the ‘ancestor,’ ‘muse,’  and ‘foremother’ of black women writers—this racially skewed lubrication dismisses representations of writers of other races…or ignores them altogether.” Among the writers he mentions are Elizabeth Hardwick and Alice Adams.

At the time, I was developing my relationship to jazz which I had always thought of as “black music” but he challenged me. Notably, when he argued that, “In her haste to disenfranchise non-African-American writers, Griffin fails to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of Holiday’s songs were composed by songwriters of European descent and that the instruments that accompany her and the tonal system they employ are also of European, rather than African, origin. Holiday’s music belongs to all of us, and Griffin’s attempt to appropriate it as the heritage of a single race is misguided, if not distasteful.” 

His line that “Billie belongs to all of us” shook me because it challenged so much of what I had believed up to that point. I also responded viscerally to the line because I had frequently found the pervasive reduction of Holiday’s art and life to tragedy, and the appropriation of Holiday’s art to perpetuate myths about doomed celebrities, grossly simplistic and exploitative.  Siegel’s observation speaks to the literal fusion, of a European tonal system and the African-American blues aesthetic that is core to jazz’s componentry as a musical genre. He also pinpoints the broader reality that there is something profound in Lady’s Day’s artistry that has enabled her to become iconic as a musician across continents, generations, races, and genres.  

 Billie Holiday is one our most transcendent artists. She belongs to all of us culturally, according to jazz critic Joel E. Siegel. 

Billie Holiday is one our most transcendent artists. She belongs to all of us culturally, according to jazz critic Joel E. Siegel. 

I am not sure if this kind of “transcendent” artist exists anymore. Today’s musical fragmentation means that even performers as popular as Adele, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift, and Kanye West, sell only a fragment of a previous generation of musicians. More importantly, their appeal seems very tied to specific demographics, especially in terms of age. We are as far away from a consensus about popular music as we have ever been, and demographic transcendence seems almost antiquated.  

Conversations about the mass culture’s appropriation of cultures, especially ethnic, regional, and working and lower class cultures, has reached an apex of circulation. Young white musical performers like Izzy Azalea, Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift are some of the more recent examples. Yet, these conversations originated in the late 19th century when blackface minstrelsy emerged as mainstream popular culture and has extended as regional styles like jazz, R&B, country, reggae, and hip-hop have entered the mainstream. 

 In 2016 the blog site The Root discussed the issue of cultural appropriation among contemporary figures like Justin Bieber.

In 2016 the blog site The Root discussed the issue of cultural appropriation among contemporary figures like Justin Bieber.

We can extract several questions from these debates including the following: In the age of mass production and digitization could any type of musical expression could ever remain contained within a specific culture? How is this desirable and/or useful, if at all? Is there is an ethical way for ethnic/regional/underrepresented cultures to reach mass consciousness without erasing their origins and diluting the music itself? How invested are we in the potentially “transcendent” qualities of music, and does this ever trump affective investments in protecting/preserving/curating regionally/ethnically specific music? These are thorny issues and neither a laissez-faire perspective that all culture is ripe for the plucking or a curatorial identity politics approach seem satisfying.      

To return to the jazz example, unlike regional genres, such as Washington D.C. based Go-Go music, jazz did not remain confined to a specific geography or culture for very long. Nor were its leading practitioners leery of it reaching a mass audience. Though musicians frequently worry about genres suffering from commercialization and dilution, jazz ambassadors like Louis Armstrong welcomed its reign as the most influential musical aesthetic in popular music from the mid-1920s until the mid-to-late 1950s. Many critics, such as the late Amiri Baraka, lamented big band music and “cool jazz” as commercialized distortions of jazz’s blues roots. Arguably, though, jazz had to extend outward from enclaves like Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, and New York to grow. Otherwise, there would be no bebop, soul-jazz, avant-garde, Latin Jazz, Brazilian jazz, fusion, or other variations. 

When recording technology emerged in the early 20th century, and mediums like records and radio made different types of music accessible to broad audiences, urban music reached rural areas, rural music reached urban areas, and these boundaries altered our contexts for listening.  You did not need to participate in black Protestant church services to appreciate gospel singers; people all over the country who never witnessed the footlights of Broadway hummed show tunes; folks could enjoy country music from the comfort of their homes without ever visiting the South.

The intentionally generic picture I am painting of the way these genres once reached the mass audience seems like a distant memory, but consider the following: If you did not grow up in certain communities in New York and Los Angeles, you are, disconnected, technically, from the cultural environments that produced hip-hop originally.  If this is true of you and you enjoy hip-hop, does this make you a poser? Does this mean you are insincere in your listening practices? Does it compromise your ability to comprehend the music fully? Most reasonable people would say no, or, probably not. The paradox of possessiveness is that artists usually want to be heard by anyone willing to listen.

But, because there is a cultural dimension to hip-hop, (e.g. cultural references, slang, geography, fashion) the relevant issue is how deeply these elements, experienced through consumption, could reasonably extend into the lives of listeners.  Since the late 1990s, many hip-hop scholars have noted the irony of upper middle class white teens consuming graphic forms of hip-hop (e.g. West Coast “gangsta” rap) but lacking cultural connections to the scenarios the music describes. This sensation is elevated when performers from genres outside of hip-hop adapt hip-hop’s musical and/or cultural elements into their music. We can easily dismiss everyday people as posers, but musicians might profit from musical tourism and expand their audience. How do we reconcile the relationship of genuine curiosity to exploitation, and can we expand the terms of the conversation? I return to the four questions above to explore what’s possible.

In the age of mass production and digitization could any type of musical expression could ever remain contained within a specific culture? Once we document cultural expressions (e.g. musical, choreographic, verbal, visual) they are immediately vulnerable to circulation and, by extension, appropriation. Notably, in the context of music, someone outside of the original environment can listen, duplicate, employ, and exploit the expression. They could also refine, embellish and enrich the tradition. There is more than one narrative possibility.

Technologies are integral to documenting and circulating culture. In the “selfie” age, where spectacle and external approval are so salient, one wonders if people seeking to protect/preserve culture are aware of how documenting their expression opens it up to public scrutiny. Exploitation, which I will define as co-optation or adaptation, without credit is one consequence. The local or regional creator of a style may be understandably upset if a style went national or international without acknowledgement of its geographic and/or cultural roots.

Three other relevant issues emerge. First, new music is usually generated by communities of musicians not just one individual. For example, the development of bossa nova (which I discussed in July 2017) occurred among multiple Brazilian musicians jamming together in the “bottle” region of Rio in the late 1950s. This is similar to the bebop musicians experimenting in New York in nightclubs in the early 1940s, and the DJs and MCs whose experiments with breakbeats created hip-hop in the 1970s. No one individual can usually take credit for creating music.

Second, if creators want to contain music to a space, documenting it and performing it means it will be heard and is thus vulnerable to circulation. Professional songwriters copyright their music and have publishing deals to ensure payment when other musicians record and/or perform their music , and when radio stations and other outlets broadcast their music. Though this is an imperfect system, it is one way that musicians have tried to protect their creation. The challenge is both the shady tactics of the publishing industry (e.g. record companies and song publishers offering musicians low royalty rates; corrupt managers adding their names to songs they did not write) and the fact that performance itself cannot be copy written. If there is a visual style and/or performance accompanying a song, it is much harder to control this aspect. A person viewing it on YouTube could easily re-create it, embody it and claim it as their own. The larger question is how creating art means we are seeking some level of reception and even immortality. In the digital age media increases the chance of something gaining exposure, but also makes artistic ownership difficulty to control.

 Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo pose triumphantly at a concert performance.  

Paul Simon, Miriam Makeba, and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo pose triumphantly at a concert performance.  

Third, we must also consider the potential for appreciation. There is the benign and valid pleasure we experience listening to something fresh and original. Musicians may also feel compelled to re-create a sound, not necessarily for profit, but because they can hear how it speaks to their musical aesthetic. In the mid-1980s, Paul Simon traveled to South Africa and jammed with South African musicians. He then edited these sessions into tracks and wrote melodies and lyrics that became the 1986 album Graceland. He was not the first Western musician to work with South African musicians but he was the most successful. He heard many overlaps between with rock and roll, gospel, and South African music and achieved immense commercial success and acclaim for his fusion. Many people criticized Simon for breaking broke the U.N.’s culture ban, but he exemplified intercultural values showing the possibility of harmony through music and broadening the audience of the singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He also toured with the group, as well as legendary South African musicians Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, and they actively campaigned against apartheid. Some might characterize him as attempting to be a white Western “savior” but few contemporary musicians have been as successful in helping expose other musicians, illuminating political realities, and recognizing the cultural roots of their music with the same conviction.  

 How desirable and/or useful is cultural preservation, if at all? People who originate from cultures that have been historically subject to genocide, enslavement, holocausts, and other forms of annihilation, tend to be guarded about how their culture travels. Given the technological landscape and illusions that we have reached a post- racial/gay/gender society (we haven’t!) we must ask: What are vulnerable populations trying to protect and/or preserve?

Dignity is one of the foremost concerns for targeted groups. Blackface minstrelsy emerged in the 19th century as the first form of national U.S. “entertainment.” Blackface minstrels were typically white performers, dressed in black face who sang, danced, and performed routines intended to mimic black performers.  At the time, whiteness was crudely conceived as intellectual, organized, and dignified and blackness as the opposite. Many scholars have argued that minstrelsy was a “mask” that allowed white performers to express a buried emotionality that would otherwise be unacceptable. As such, some have interpreted it as a form of appreciation and homage. Comparatively, many black Americans viewed (and still view it) as racist and degrading, in part because it confines black expression to one mode, defined by exaggerated and distorted ideas about black expression. After centuries of enslavement and dehumanization it was perversely ironic for white culture to create and enact a version of blakc culture without recognizing the humanity of blacks. Many black performers have performed in blackface minstrelsy in the late 19th and early 20th century, but this was more for survival than anything artistic.

Gradually, this style, which made people like vaudevillian Al Jolson famous, faded from popular entertainment.  Arguably, it has manifested itself in everything from the cartoon-ish faux-gangster image of Vanilla Ice in the early 1990s to “urban themed” parties hosted by white fraternity and sororities featuring members in blackface. The indignities represented by blackface, which epitomizes appropriation, distortion, and exploitation is a core reason why many genre fans are leery of “urban” culture reaching the suburbs. There is a pervasive sense that those who mimic these emergent aesthetics are seduced by the cultural products but disinterested in the people and cultures that have generated the products. This gap is in many ways a metaphor for U.S. racism.

Cultural appropriation, and the associated indignities, are often a kind of default conclusion we draw when culture we covet seems to emanate from the wrong person or place. The intent of culture making is at stake. Presumably, performers want audiences, and those who do seek out ways to get their music circulated. If this is the case, what are the boundaries between listeners adapting and refining music and merely borrowing it? This feeds into my next question.

 Is there is an ethical way for ethnic/regional/underrepresented cultures to reach mass consciousness without erasing their origins and diluting the music itself? Stealing culture is easy; as is finger pointing.  What is harder and more interesting is discussing what it looks like to pay homage properly and/or to fuse and hybridize effectively. Prior to rock and roll professional songwriters and/or those contracted to write for Broadway and film wrote the most popular songs. These are the kinds of songs that made Holiday, and other legends like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald famous.  In the late 1940s through the mid-1950s a new class of singer-songwriters emerged in R&B, folk music, and rock and roll and it became common for singers to write their own material. Interpretive singers of the rock generation frequently covered music written by songwriters of their own generation, not from the swing era. Then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, a lot of rock generation sinners began recording pre-rock material with orchestras, which evoked the feel of pre-rock music. Many critics applauded this as a sign of generational reconciliation, but others lamented the inferior musicality of the new generation and/or the failure to modernize “old” songs effectively.

A few singers transcended the nostalgic preservation approach and garnered some critical respect. For example, Cassandra Wilson’s 1993 album Blue Light Til Dawn eschewed orchestras and traditional jazz instrumentation, and the typical jazz repertoire for a more stripped down sound with elements of electric blues and R&B. she also chose songs from multiple eras, and wrote original material. The result was a wholly contemporary approach to jazz singing that influenced her peers. She is an example of a singer from the rock generation (she was born in the mid-1950s) who melded her taste with her interest in jazz and blues music. More recently, singers like Joe Jackson who paid tribute to Duke Ellington on 2012’s funky The Duke, and contemporary post-bop singer Gretchen Parlato, have stretched the boundaries of what people might define as jazz by using contemporary, experimental interpretive approaches. They are aiming to innovate and add to the tradition, rather than mimic and repeat easy formulas, and the results are dazzling

 Gretchen Parlato is a great example of a contemporary jazz singer who is aiming to innovate within the tradition rather than duplicate the past.

Gretchen Parlato is a great example of a contemporary jazz singer who is aiming to innovate within the tradition rather than duplicate the past.

 How invested are we in the potentially “transcendent” qualities of music, and does this ever trump affective investments in protecting/preserving/curating regionally/ethnically specific music? These questions return us to the original issue of transcendence. Music is cultural expression, entertainment, and pleasure. Artists want to people to listen, and often consume their music, as well as their persona and their aesthetic.  Artists often seem less bothered by appropriation than audiences and critics. I distinguish this from their anger toward corrupt record labels, managers, agents, accountants, and nightclub owners.  Wanting to be heard and seeking visibility entails vulnerability, but also possibility. No one will ever be able to duplicate someone as gifted and unique as Holiday, or Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Laura Nyro, or Cassandra Wilson to name a few. We can enjoy their music and take inspiration from it but artists attempt to achieve originality. All artists reflect their influences, but perhaps the most distinguished artists synthesize elements of their influences into something that feels connected yet distinctive. Finding your own language—musically, visually, emotionally—and continually refining it is a consistent pathway our most heralded icons seem to pursue. The examples of mimicry, cultural exploitation and formula I have outlined represent the worst of what happens when artists fail to tap into their roots and create something new.

But there are plenty examples of artists whose careers are defined by this approach from Paul Simon to Gretchen Parlato. Holiday derived her phrasing, her interpretations of lyrics, and her sense of time from absorbing the art of predecessors like Bessie Smith and Armstrong.  While we can hear elements of their influence in her artistry, what we mostly hear is Holiday. She has inspired fine artists like Tony Bennett, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Etta James, Abbey Lincoln, and Carmen McRae, all of whom have recorded tributes. Yet no one would ever confuse her with them, or vice versa and that is the point. They learned from her that each artist has to make a unique imprint to matter. There is no substitute for the real thing.




Essential Voices: 150 Best Albums by Female Artists: A personal list (1974-1992, Part 2)


Court & Spark: Joni Mitchell’s most textured and engaging album is the luscious Court & Spark, which features some of her most notable songs including “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” and her rendition of Annie Ross’s “Twisted.”

Elis & Tom: Brazil’s finest female singer, Elis Regina, and its finest composer, AntonioCarlos Jobim, joined forces on this sublime bossa nova masterpiece; their renditions of Jobim’s classic shave not been surpassed.

Heart Like a Wheel: A classic and highly influential album featuring sterling renditions of songs popularized by The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Betty Everett, as well as newer songs by The McGarrigle Sisters, James Taylor and Little Feat.

Phoebe Snow: Snow’s voice had a fluid ethereal sound and quirky sensibility that made her stand out from her singer-songwriters in the mid-1970s thanks to originals like “Poetry Man” and “Harpo’s Blues.”


The Changer & the Changed: Cris Williamson was one of the most beloved singers to merge from the 1970s lesbian feminist “women’s music” circuit and this folk-rock masterpiece features beautiful anthems celebrating nature, spirituality, and female sensuality.

Pieces of the Sky: Classic and modern Emmylou Harris was a folkie who grew to love country music through her association with Gram Parsons; her first significant album reveals her excellent taste in music and mastery of classic country (Louvin Brothers), contemporary country (Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton), and rock music (The Beatles).


Dreamboat Annie: Ann and Nancy Wilson translated their love for Led Zeppelin style heavy metal into a potent personal style on their debut, which introduced listeners to their approach on the rock classics “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You.”

First Night: New York cabaret singer evoked the melancholic beauty of Edith Piaf on her stunning debut, highlighted by dulcet performances of “Some Enchanted Evening,” Don McLean’s “Vincent,” and The Fleetwoods’s 1958 hit “Come Softly to Me.”


Rumours: Romantic drama fueled Fleetwood Mac’s rock masterpiece, largely known for Stevie Nick’s “Dreams” and Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop” and “You Make Loving Fun.”


Gail Davies: Davies was part of a new vanguard of female country musicians who wrote, played, sang and eventually produced their own music; her debut is a masterpiece with charming songs like “Grandma’s Song,” “Soft Spoken Man,” and the hit “Someone is Looking for Someone Like You.”

Parallel Lines: Blondie, defined by the voice of Debbie Harry,  found the right balance of dance pop energy and punk attitude here landing at multiple stops including rock-disco (“Heart of Glass”), ‘60s pop homage (“Hanging on the Telephone”), and genuine punk rock (“One Way or Another”).


The Audience with Betty Carter: Bop songstress Carter was the most adventurous vocal improviser in jazz and this set finally captured her dynamic ability to completely transform standards, compose and perform her own original improvisational vocal showcases, and interact like an instrumentalist with her band.

Bad Girls: Donna Summer continued to expand the scope of disco and transcend it rocking out on “Hot Stuff,” sashaying to the dance floor on “Dim All the Lights,” and commenting on fame on the sassy title rack (“Toot Toot, Beep Beep”) and “Sunset People.”

Brenda Russell: Classic soul ballads like “If Only for One Night,” “So Good, So Right,” and “In the Thick of It” originated from the penand voice of singer songwriter Brenda Russell who invites you in with her gentle piano and intimate vocal delivery.

Rickie Lee Jones: Drawing on the rhythms and attitude of the Beats, the improvisational spirit of jazz, and the free flowing style of Laura Nyro, Jones was a fresh voice on her classic 1979 debut, which features her biggest hit, the loping “Chuck E’s in Love.”



Bad Reputation: Joan Jett emerged as one of the freshest new voices in ‘80s rock on this album; influenced by rock ‘n’ roll, glam rock, ‘60s pop/rock, and R&B she defined herself on the gutsy title track, “Do You Wanna Touch (Yeah)” and a rocking cover of “Shout.”

The Pretenders: The Pretenders delighted rock fans with their spunky guitar driven rock spotlighted on “Brass in Pocket,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” and “Kid” which established Hynde as a rock goddess.


Bella Donna: Stevie Nicks took a break from Fleetwood Mac to create her own sound, a sleek contemporary rock sound that was musically accessible (“Edge of Seventeen,” “Leather and Lace,” “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”) but still informed by her gypsy lyric mythology.


Chaka Khan: Chaka Khan’s most accomplished R&B album is a shimmering funk masterpiece featuring a soaring version of Michael Jackson’s “Got to Be There,” a smoking duet with Rick James (“Slow Dancing”), and a stunning “Be Bop medley” featuring lyricized versions of classic bop melodies.

The Key: Rocker Joan Armatrading explores a variety of scenarios related to gender in her muscular voice and contemplative lyric style, in a punchy rock setting with vibrant new wave-ish touches.

Madonna: The legend begins here with spirited, melodic pop (“Holiday,” “Lucky Star,” “Burning Up”) delivered with the right mix of spunk and funk; the videos made her an MTV superstar.


Private Dancer: After spending three decades in the shadow of her former husband/bandleader Tina Turner got the opportunity to interpret a set of quality new songs and contemporary covers that gave her one of the most spectacular comebacks in pop music.

She’s So Unusual: Cyndi Lauper’s eclectic pop masterpiece made mid-1980s pop a more vibrant, eccentric and interesting space thanks to smart, buoyant tunes like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and her luscious ballad “Time After Time.”


Whitney Houston: Houston’s supple voice and soulful phrasing made her the premiere pop singer of the age thanks to her interpretive prowess on dramatic ballads (“Saving All My Love for You”) and her light touch with dance pop (“How Will I Know”).


Rapture: Anita Baker made R&B music for grown-ups on this retronuevo masterpiece, highlighted by the dramatic sweep of “Sweet Love,” and lush, unhurried songs like “Caught Up in the Rapture” and “Been So Long.”

Control: Janet Jackson made the leap from anonymity to stardom on this funky collection of anthems that reflected her budding personal independence (“Control”) and assertive sexuality (“Nasty,” “What Have You Done for Me Lately?”)

Famous Blue Raincoat: Jennifer Warnes’s honey smooth voice and smart phrasing transformed Leonard Cohen’s famously dour songs into melodic contemporary pop, and yielded a few new classics including the Warnes and Cohen original, “Song of Bernadette.”

Timeless: The soulful Diane Schuur was one of the most exciting new vocalists in vocal jazz in the 1980s and the mastery of big band swing, ballad standards and blues, she demonstrated on Timeless assured listeners the tradition would continue to thrive.


Coming Around Again: Carly Simon reignited her career with the wistful title track and a series of songs addressing the perspective of a woman reaching middle age and reflecting on love, relationships, and the nature of desire.

Female Trouble: Nona Hendryx, best known for singing in LaBelle, is an adventurous musician who pulls together her different sides very convincingly on this entertaining mix of funk, rock, and dance pop.  

The Lion and the Cobra: Sinead O’Connor’s debut is a moody portrait of a complex artist with an intriguing vision of politics, sex, and spirituality beyond the juvenile themes and tiring musical formulas of much 1980s pop/rock.

Trio: Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt did what they have always done best; drawing on the best of American music from a variety of era and genres tocreate something special; in this case a beautifully harmonized country-folk masterpiece showcasing the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, Phil Spector (!), Linda Thompson and Parton.


Used Guitars: Marti Jones’s Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material and arrangements. Influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country and even aspects of punk she synthesizes them masterfully on the songs of Jackie Deshannon, John Hiatt, Janis Ian, Graham Parker, and originals.

Lucinda Williams: Rocking, poetic, and romantic, Lucinda Williams finally stepped away from her country blues and folk influences and found her own voice as a writer on this blazing set featuring original versions of “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” “The Night’s Too Long,” “Changed the Locks,” “Passionate Kisses,” and “Crescent City,” covered later by Mary Chapin-Carpenter Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Tom Petty, among others. 

This Woman: K.T. Oslin eschews the co-dependent sentimentality of country lyrics on This Woman by centering women’s desires in songs that reflect the upward mobility, sexual freedom and greater sense of choice available to women of her generation.

Tracy Chapman: Possessing a gift for melody, genuine narrative storytelling prowess and an endearing choked tremolo Tracy Chapman came out of left field to become the new voice of contemporary folk on her superb debut featuring “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”



Absolute Torch & Twang: k.d. lang transitioned from a reverent student of country to one of its most trenchant writers and powerful vocalists thanks to the Bo Diddley-esque “Didn’t I,” the torchy “Pulling Back the Reins,” and the poignant “Nowhere to Stand.” 

Porcelain: A gorgeous collection of sumptuous pop, lite samba, and jazz ballads written and performed by British singer-songwriter Julia Fordham.

Close Enough for Love:  Shirley Horn was an interpretive magician; songs like “I Got Lost in his Arms” and the title song have rarely been sung with such intimacy, and she swings like mad on “Get Out of Town” and “Come Fly with Me.”

Like a Prayer: After five years of hit-making Madonna made her first serious concept album exploring faith, sex, and family on classics like “Like a Payer,” “Express Yourself,”  and Keep it Together.”

Nick of Time: Bonnie Raitt’s nearly 20 years of dues paying paid off on this collection of performances; she captured the nuances of aging on the beautiful title track, along with radio friendly tunes like “Thing Called Love” and “Have a Heart,” and showed her blues roots on album cuts like “I Will not be Denied,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break my Heart Again.”


Mariah Carey: On her eponymous debut, Carey established herself as the new vocal standard in contemporary female pop-soul thanks to a dazzling range, a stunning command of gospel melisma, and a gift for writing and arranging memorable originals like “Vision of Love” and “Vanishing.”

Interiors: Rosanne Cash turned her back on commercial country in favor of the spare and searing confessional music on Interiors which uncovered the emotional layers of her marriage, and her identity.

Lying to the Moon: Nashville songwriter Matraca Berg finally got her chance to sing on her acclaimed debut, which introduced a host of contemporary country classics other singers have interpreted over the years.


Blue Lines: Massive Attack created the blueprint for what became trip-hop and vocalist Shara Nelson was their most outstanding voice, most notably on “Unfinished Sympathy” and “Hymn of the Big Wheel.”

Flying Cowboys: Rickie Lee Jones hit a second creative peak in the 1990s on this genreless mix of vibrant pop tunes, reggae, and folk vignettes.

Unforgettable with Love: After 15 years singing R&B Natalie Cole transitioned seamlessly to vocal jazz on this alternately lush and swinging tribute to her legendary father and the classic music that made him famous. [1991 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]


Blame it On My Youth: Canadian vocalist Holly Cole’s U.S. debut is a progressive blend of Broadway and pre-rock pop with songs by Lyle Lovett, Tom Waits, etc. that gels into a thrilling whole; a benchmark of ‘90s cabaret-jazz.

Diva: Annie Lennox redefined herself from the chameleonic front woman of the Eurythmics to the soulful diva of “Why” and “Walking on Broken Glass.”

Ingénue: After mastering country in the late 1980s k.d. lang turned her attention to crafting the smoldering torch pop on this collection of savory tunes, including “Constant Craving,” “Save Me,” and “Miss Chatelaine.”

What’s the 411?: Mary J. Blige’s unique fusion of soul music and hip-hop production birthed hip-hop soul and instantly redefined black pop in the early 1990s.

Check out Part 3: 1993-2017!



Essential Voices: 150 Best Albums by Female Artists: A personal list (1950-1973, Part 1)

I decided it would be fun to respond to NPR’s “150 greatest albums by female artists” list released on July 28, 2017. I enjoyed reading their list; I own about 50 of the albums and love many of their choices. In terms of sheer range, their list has is great stylistic and cultural diversity, and a broad representation of eras. Still, no one agrees 100% with anyone’s list so this is my turn.

I selected albums only and tried to avoid compilations. There are a few albums from the 1950s that can only be purchased in combination with another album; fortunately, this did not compromise the quality of the list. I selected the albums based primarily on quality, as in “Does this album provide an enjoyable listening experience for me, and does it fulfill its artistic aspirations? I also considered, “Does this album feature songs, arrangements, and/or performances that has inspired other artists?” In essence, does it have staying power? Some artists have vast discographies of impressive music and repeat themselves so I tried to consider if the album is merely a good representation of their style or a true advancement? 

To mix things up, I invited two Riffs, Beats & Codas readers to share a selection and their rationales. Checkout their selections in Part  3. I aimed for variety very intentionally so I had to edit myself to avoid overrepresenting prolific artists to provide space for a wide range of artists and styles. For example, I wrote an entire post in 2016 about my admiration for the artistry of Sarah Vaughan, thus I restricted my Vaughan entries to a few representative examples. Viva variety!  

I organized the albums by year. This approach reflects a few things:

·         Most recording artists recorded singles until the mid-1950s when albums were in the process of becoming the dominant recording medium

·         Because of the latter, a lot of important artists (e.g. Bessie Smith) did not record “albums” during their lifetime and/or their best work is featured on compilations

·         The yearly format illustrates the music of the zeitgeist; for example vocal jazz was still mainstream pop in the mid-1950s so the first decade is heavy on vocal jazz and cabaret

·         You can see where I am age-wise by the volume of album/year. There are far fewer albums from the 2000-2010s and more independent music because as I have aged my taste has gotten narrower. I find less and less mainstream pop music appealing which explains the prevalence of music recorded in genres that appeal to older audiences such as blues and jazz.

·         Related to this is the zeitgeist issue. There are albums that have sold millions of copies and are framed as “defining an age” that I find marginal in quality and/or overrated. This is highly subjective, which illustrates the fact that lists reflect personal tastes even when “serious” writers are trying to thing about historical posterity.

·         Finally, every year is not represented. I whittled this down from over an initial list of 290 albums, which tells you a lot about the excellent albums women have recorded in the 67 year (!) period the list covers.

Most performers who sing in languages other than English have limited commercial exposure in the U.S. so there are fewer albums in these tongues than I would like. I listen to many vocalists singing in Portuguese and Spanish, but am not as confident in certain genres as I am in U.S,. styles. I listen to far less music sung in Creole, French, Korean, and other tongues. This reflects my own limitations and larger structural realities. U.S. record companies focus more on crossover acts, especially signers who perform in English and other languages to ensure crossover success, with rare exception. They also often lump diverse artists under the “world music” category, which flattens out difference. By association, many Americans have a limited familiarity with international acts. For example, many Americans know Astrud Gilberto (“Girl from Ipanema”), but know little about other Brazilian female vocalists. Few since Gilberto have really “crossed over” in the States. I hope to devote future attention to the topic.

 I hope you recognize some of your favorites, discover some new artists, and find some head scratching omissions. Enjoy!


Ella Sings Gershwin: After years of singing commercial novelty songs Decca Records let Fitzgerald record a 10-song suite of great songs in a mature style, accompanied by the elegant pianist Ellis Larkins.[Pure Ella, which combines Sings Gershwin with Fitzgerald’s fine 1954’s set Songs in a Mellow Mood, is the only way to purchase both].


Night in Manhattan: Lee Wiley’s cool tone and supple phrasing bring out the emotional richness of ballad standards like “Manhattan,” “I’ve got a Crush on You,” and, “Street of Dreams” on this elegant album. [Recorded in 1951 when albums were only 8 songs, it is only available in a three-fer with exquisite “songbook” albums Sings Vincent Youmans (1952) and Sings Irving Berlin (1952) making it a great value!]


Dinah Jams: The country’s greatest blues singer showcases her ability to improvise with modern jazz musicians in front of an invited audience.

Sarah Vaughan: Bebop’s premier vocalist was able to sing and jam blissfully free from commercial pressures on this sumptuous suite of ballads and mid-tempo swingers with a simpatico small group, including trumpeter Clifford Brown.


Black Coffee: Vocal sensuality Peggy Lee made one of the first “concept albums” on this collection of torch ballads and love songs recorded in an intimate small group jazz setting that flatters her subtle vocal style.

For Those in Love: Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones collaborated on this exquisitely beautiful collection of ballads played by top-drawer jazz musicians and featuring brilliant solos.

In the Land of Hi-Fi: Sarah Vaughan and a big band swing their asses off on blazing versions of “Cherokee” and “How High the Moon,” and transform “Over the Rainbow” into a paragon of sensuous balladry

Something Cool: June Christy sang the anthem of the “cool school” vocal jazz aesthetic with its existential almost cinematic title track; she renders the surrounding songs with equal detail and musicality.


Blue Rose: Rosemary Clooney broke from commercial pop on this program of Ellington-Strayhorn songs, including the wordless title track Ellington wrote for her and the definitive version of “Sophisticated Lady.”

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook: Fitzgerald kicked off her heralded 16 album songbook series on this collection of interpretations that are as funny, sexy, and dramatic as Porter’s revered songs.

Midnight at Mabel Mercer’s: This eloquent program of songs captures the regal mannerisms and intimate interpretive genius of the Queen of New York cabaret Mabel Mercer in her prime.

Pick Yourself Up: The always hip and swinging Anita O’Day transitioned from swing to bop- inspired improvisation seamlessly; here, her cool tone never wavers on these virtuoso displays of improvisational prowess.

Songs of a Love Affair: Jean Shepard recorded the first country music concept album, in this case one organized around the drama of an affair breaking up amarriage; classic country drama!

A Tribute to Andy Razaf: Razaf’s witty, swinging, and diverse songs got their first proper album treatment via the delicate touch of the ever swinging Maxine Sullivan and her band of all-stars.


Odetta Sings Ballads & Blues: Folk singer Odetta began her legend here singing folk songs and spirituals that revived folk music as a vital contemporary genre and inspired generations of performers to explore the genre’s deep roots.

Swingin’ Easy: Sarah Vaughan thrived in a small jazz groups and on Swing she and her bandmates perform definitive versions of “All of Me,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”; she wrote and performed one of the most innovative (and imitated) jazz band anthems of all time, “Shulie A Bop.”


Little Girl Blue: Nina Simone’s debut turned listeners on to her elegant, powerful piano playing and unique vocal style; highlights include the classics “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “Love Me or Leave Me.”


Ella Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook: Ella Fitzgerald and master arranger Nelson Riddle give a wide range of popular and rare Gershwin songs a deluxe orchestral and big band interpretive treatment over three discs.


Rockin’ with Wanda: Rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson staked her claim as the first lady of rock ‘n’ roll field with stellar cuts like “Fujiyama Mama” and “Mean Man.”


Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: America’s most beloved singing actress gave a bravura performance of her signature tunes in all of her glory at Carnegie and the results were captured on tape. [1961 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]

Out of the Blue: Just when people thought vocal jazz had peaked Carol Sloane wowed everyone with her accomplished debut, one marked by the improvisational skill, musical phrasing and good taste that defined her career for the next 50 years.

Sings Lover Man and Other Billie Holiday Favorites: Carmen McRae established herself at Decca records in the mid-1950s, but her finest early album is a salute to her greatest influence Lady Day; like Holiday, McRae is an individual with a high level of musicality who puts a personal imprint on everything she sings. 

Songs I Like to Sing!: Helen Humes began as a sassy young blues singer and sang with Count Basie and big bands before becoming a formidable jazz artist; here she delivers some of the most effortlessly swinging performances of standards like “Mean to Me,” “My Old Flame,” and “St. Louis Blues”  plus the best version of her original anthem “Million Dollar Secret.”


Getz/Gilberto: This lovely mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, sung by Astrud Gilberto, introduced Americans to the seductive sounds of Brazil’s bossa nova tradition notably on the Jobim classics “The Girl from Ipanema,” and “Once I Loved.” [1962 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]

Portrait of Sheila: Inspired by modern jazz, especially Charlie Parker, vocalist Sheila Jordan’s highly influential debut showed her ability to push the harmonic and rhythmic boundaries of popular songs like “Baltimore Oriole” and “Falling in Love with Love.”


Back to the Blues: On one of her final albums, the Queen of the Blues, Dinah Washington, reclaimed her crown singing with the incisive bite and radiant sexiness that made her famous.

Barbra Streisand Album: At 23 years old Barbra Streisand contemporized the vocal pop tradition with riveting dramatic versions of “Cry Me a River” and “Happy Days are Here Again” that indicated a startling command of the tradition and a remarkable instrument.   [1963 Grammy Winner Album of the Year]


Nina Simone in Concert: Nina Simone shifted from a jazz chanteuse into an outspoken activist on this exciting live set, notable for the civil rights themes “Go Limp” and “Mississippi Goddamn.”

Wish Someone Would Care: Irma Thomas became the “New Orleans Soul Queen” because she bared her soul on songs like her self-penned title track, and original versions of rock classics like “Time is On My Side,” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Break-a-Way.”


I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You: Aretha Franklin became the Queen of Soul on the strength of “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Save Me,” and “I Never Loved a Man,” and other classic performances that make this the best ‘60s soul album recorded.

More than a New Discovery: No 1960s pop songwriter wrote with the melodic freedom and lyrical intrigue of Laura Nyro whose debut features classics like “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Stoney End,” “And When I Die,” and “Flim Flam Man” that became hits for other performers, though her versions remain definitive.

Ode to Billie Joe: Bobby Gentry introduced the world to the mystery of Billie Joe McAllister on this moody, swampy southern folk classic.

Surrealistic Pillow: The Jefferson Airplane kicked open the door to psychedelic and acid rock era for a generation thanks to anthemic hits like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” sung powerfully by Grace Slick.

Wildflowers: Judy Collins showcased the purity her crystal clear soprano and her interpretive chops on this folk masterpiece which features classic versions of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” and “Hey that’s No Way to sayGoodbye,” and her enduring original “Since You Asked.”


Delta Sweetie: On this layered mix of blues, country, and folk tunes Bobbie Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”) presents an offbeat, and often dark portrait of Southern life through a dazzling array of characters and scenarios. 

Eli and the 13th Confession: After debuting with one of the most original and frequently covered collections of new songs to premiere in the 1960s, Laura Nyro revealed her inner creative essence in even more personal terms on the slinky melodies, cryptic lyrics and odd harmonies of sings like “Luckie,” ‘Poverty Train,” and “Emmie.”

Lady Soul: Aretha Franklin earned this album’s title easily galloping mightily through “Chain of Fools” and “Since You’ve Been Gone,” and delivering the unspeakably beautiful “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman,” and the majestic “Ain’t No Way.”


Dusty in Memphis: Dusty Springfield morphed from a skillful jack-of-all trades who could handle girl group pop, R&B, and bombastic balladry to a lean interpreter of soulful, coolly erotic anthems like “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Just a Little Lovin’” on this classic collection.

First Take: Roberta Flack pioneered a new fusion of folk, soul, jazz, and chamber pop on her debut which features her and a small band recording now iconic versions of “The First Time ever I Saw Your Face,” “Compared to What,” and “Hey that’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” in one take with Flack on vocals and piano; both the album and “First” became belated hits in 1972.

New York Tendaberry: Laura Nyro wrapped up one of pop’s most stunning trifectas in this lyrically elusive and stylistically kaleidoscopic masterpiece; many singers have mined the riches of “Save the Country” and “Time and Love.”


Blue: How could an album featuring oft recorded classics like “River,” “All I Want,” and “A case of You,” not be classic; Joni Mitchell’s first masterpiece.

Pearl: Janis Joplin’s epitaph is her greatest recording achievement highlighted by her nuanced version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and soulful wailers like “Cry Baby” and “Mercedes Benz.”

Tapestry: Carole King transitioned from a songwriter for hire to a popular artist capable of writing intimate yet relatable songs about her experiences, like “It’s Too Late,” “So Far Away,” and “Tapestry,” all documented on one of singer-songwriter pop’s most consistent and enjoyable albums.


Amazing Grace: You can always hear the gospel in Aretha Franklin’s voice, but she literally takes listeners to church on this stunning album recorded live in a church.

Be Altitude: Respect Yourself: The Staples Singer’s ability to sing secular music and still hold on to their gospel roots shines brilliantly on their definitive hits “I’ll Take you There” and “Respect Yourself” where the mighty Mavis Staples soars.

Give it Up: On her second album vocalist and slide guitar player Bonnie Raitt proved she could rave (the title track), smolder (“Love Me Like a Man”), and mourn (“Love Has No Pride”) with equal authority.

The Great American Songbook: Jazz singer Carmen McRae was a deft interpreter whose subtle improvisational choices put an individual touch on everything, which this album captures wonderfully live; it’s thrilling hearing her work her magic on tunes as varied as “Day by Day,” “A Song for You,” and “Mr. Ugly.” 


Divine Miss M: Bette Midler remade cabaret into a hip contemporary style on her stunning debut, which slows down chestnuts like “Do You Wanna Dance” to draw out their subtext, and speeds up tunes like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to reveal their inherent excess, an interpretive landmark.

Imagination: Gladys Knight and the Pips were performers since their teens, but they reached an acme of excellence on the consistently excellent performances on Imagination highlighted by their signature “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and “Where Peaceful Waters Flow” among other tight, soulful performances.

Live in Japan: After a few years recording unsuitable pop material jazz legend Sarah Vaughan reminded listeners of her immense improvisational gifts on this spacious double album featuring some of her most thrilling vocals including an epic “Nearness of You” (featuring Vaughan on piano), and a hypnotic rendition of Jobim’s “Wave.”

Maria Muldaur: Singer, fiddler, and folkie Muldaur’s debut defined her as a progressive contemporary interpreter who could bring intelligence and musicality to classic tunes and expose audiences to outstanding contemporary songs by emerging writers like David Nichtern (“Midnight at the Oasis”), Dolly Parton (“Tennessee Mountain Home”) and Wendy Waldman (“Mad Mad Me”).

Check out Part 2: 1974-1992 on the blog!



The story behind the rhythm: Notes on a Brazilian Love Affair, Part 2: Bossa and Beyond

The Birth of Bossa Nova

Brazil experienced a new “Golden Age” in the mid-1950s symbolized by an invigorated national infrastructure, the country’s 1958 World Cup victory, and a growing urban middle class. Brazil’s president, Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-61) aimed for “fifty years of progress in five.” The music that best captured the zeitgeist was bossa nova, Portuguese for “new fashion” or “new way.”

Bossa nova grew out of experimental music scene occurring in Rio in the early 1950s. Musicians, like Carlos Lyra, Antonio (“Tom”) Carlos Jobim, Durval Ferreira, Luis Eça, and Baden Powell played chiefly in the "Bottles Lane" area of nightclubs to develop the sound. Poet and prolific lyricist Vinicius de Moraes was also part of the scene. Most bossa nova musicians lived in Zona Sul (South Zone of Rio), and their music reflected the economic and social optimism of the middle class.

 Antonio Carlos ("Tom") Jobim (seated at the piano), and poet, lyricist, and singer Vinicius de Moraes (standing) were some of the earliest composers of what became bossa nova.

Antonio Carlos ("Tom") Jobim (seated at the piano), and poet, lyricist, and singer Vinicius de Moraes (standing) were some of the earliest composers of what became bossa nova.

Bossa was a kind of soft samba played at a slower tempo, with light, soft singing and percussion that is more limited. Musically it fuses samba’s rhythmic complexity with a different beat and harmonic richness associated and classical music and jazz. Bossa nova was shaped by progressive trends in samba, the guitar style of Garoto, and several other musicians including Johnny Alf (Alfredo Jose da Silva), guitarist Luiz Bonfá, and pianist João Donato. American styles like West Coast “cool jazz” also influenced its sound.


 Guitarist and vocalist João Gilberto scored the first bossa nova hit album in Brazil with 1959's  Chega da Saudade .

Guitarist and vocalist João Gilberto scored the first bossa nova hit album in Brazil with 1959's Chega da Saudade.

Samba was the rhythmic base but musicians sometimes drew on the baião, bolero, and marcha traditions in their playing. Harmonically progressive elements, including altered and inverted chords also provided a unique sound. These elements reflect the influences and tastes of some of its key early practitioners notably João Gilberto, Jobim, and de Moraes.

Lyrically songs often had poetic, eloquent lyrics and frequently referenced ethereal themes related to nature and romance. Vocally, bossa nova singers sang gently and quietly, barely above a whisper, in a seductive manner that pulled you into the lyrics. 

The most prominent composer was Jobim who was classically trained by piano teacher Hans Joachim Koellreutter and Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Jobim studied classical composers like Brahms, Chopin, and Debussy, and listened to American performers such as Frank Sinatra. In the early 1950s Jobim became a fixture on the club scene and worked as an arranger as he developed his songwriting. In the mid 1950s, he became a music celebrity and had his own television show in São Paulo Bom Tom.  Jobim was a prolific composer who recorded bossa nova and composed classical suites. Some of his most notable composition’s include “Corcovado,” “Triste,” “Wave,” and “Waters of March,” to name a few. He also co-wrote songs with de Moraes, Aloysio de Oliviera, Mendonça, and Chico Buarque.

Forerunners of bossa nova style emerged in the compositions of Jobim and Newton Mendoça. Mauricy Moura recorded “Incerteza (Uncertainty)” in 1953 and “Samba de uma Nota So” in 1954 but the style did not gain substantive exposure until the late 1950s. Throughout his career, he collaborated with a variety of lyricists including de Moraes, Alysio de Oliveira, and Chico Buarque.

The 1958 recording of “Chega de Saudade” a 1956 composition with de Moraes, written for the play Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), was the first bossa nova single recording and João Gilberto’s Chega de Saudade the first bossa nova album. Gilberto was renowned for an innovative guitar technique that including syncopating sung notes against guitar motifs, as well as a slow, hushed and understated vocal style.  By 1959, Gilberto’s album made bossa nova a commercial phenomenon in Brazil. The key breakthrough, however, was the soundtrack to the film version of The Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) which “internationalized” bossa nova via hit songs like Luiz Bonfá’s “Mahna de Carnaval.”

In the early 1960s, bossa nova flourished throughout Rio and a new generation of singers excelled in the emergent style including Leny Andrade, Alkayde Costa, Maysa, Pery Ribeiro, and Sylvia Telles. In the United States, Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s Jazz Samba, released in 1962 was the breakthrough bossa nova recording in the U.S. anchored by their hit version of “Desafinado” (“Off-Key”). The mix of jazz and bossa nova was the result of jazz musicians travelling to Brazil and absorbing the music and culture of the “bottles bar” scene of Rio. The initial U.S. boom included bossa themed jazz albums like jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s 1962 album Do the Bossa Nova with Herbie Mann, Quincy Jones’s Big Band Bossa Nova, and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s 1963 album Cannonball’s Bossa Nova. A pivotal marker of the burgeoning bossa nova scene in the U.S. was a November 1962 concert recorded at Carnegie Hall featuring performances by Gilberto, Jobim, Lyra, and Mendes in collaboration with U.S. jazz musicians.

Bossa nova was a hot new sound and reached its widest audience via the success of the charming single “The Girl from Ipanema” sung by Astrud Gilberto, João’s wife, and featured on 1964’s Getz/Gilberto album. Bossa nova quickly grew from an obscure Rio based style to a pop phenomenon. In addition to frequent covers of bossa nova songs by English language singers it also surfaced in pop songs like Eydie Gorme’s “Blame it on the Bossa Nova.” By 1964, the bossa nova style was fading commercially in Brazil amid growing concerns that the freshness of the once vital sound was growing too formulaic and commercial.

Post-Bossa Nova

In 1964, the same year as “Girl” became a massive worldwide hit the Brazilian military staged a military coup, overthrowing President João Goulart. The thriving democracy became a dictatorship and military rule lasted for over 20 years, and. This led many musicians to incorporate political themes in their lyrics in protest. Many musicians associated with bossa nova left Brazil during the 1960s such as Carlos Lyra who recorded political bossa nova and moved to Mexico from 1966-71. Others who resettled included Luiz Bonfá, Oscar Castro-Neves, and João Gilberto who all moved to the U.S. in the 1960s. Many of these figures returned to Brazil eventually.

Some key musical transitions during this time included the beginning of televised Brazilian musical festivals in 1965 and the emergence of what became the MPB (música popular brasileira) sound. MPB is a broad term for musicians who draw from samba, bossa nova, jazz, pop and other styles thus defying easy categorization. Some of the more prominent MPB voices to emerge during the mid 1960s-early 1970s include Djavan, Gilberto Gil, Ivan Lins, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, and Caetano Veloso. The festivals provided an optimal opportunity for composers to gain exposure. For example, Elis Regina, widely regarded as Brazilian’s finest female vocalist, won the 1965 first prize at the TV Excelsior festival singing “Arrastão” co-written by Edu Lobo and de Moraes.

Though the festivals were very popular they were temporary respite from Brazil’s increasingly unstable government.  For example, in 1965 the Social Democratic Party was abolished and a succession of military men “led” what was essentially a military state. Though the state paid limited attention to artists initially, as young people became more active in protesting military rule the dictatorship interfered more actively, harassing and censoring artists, and eventually screening song lyrics and arresting artists. Out of this context grew tropicália.


 Gal Costa debuted as an MPB artist in 1967, but her 1969 self-titled album was one of several late 1960s albums that embodied the emerging  Tropicália  sound.

Gal Costa debuted as an MPB artist in 1967, but her 1969 self-titled album was one of several late 1960s albums that embodied the emerging Tropicália sound.

Tropicália revolution

A subgenre of the post-bossa nova MPB scene, tropicália was a youth led artistic movement. Though Brazilian musicians recorded rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-1950s the greatest impact of mid ‘60s British and U.S. styles, especially the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic rock, was felt among Tropicália’s key voices. These included including Gal Costa, Gil, Veloso, and Tom Zé and members of the band Os Mutantes. Influenced by the late 1960s countercultural youth movements, the avant-garde Cinema Novo, Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetic, experimental theater and performance art, the Tropicalistas responded to the fascism of the right and the nationalism of the left with this experimental hybrid of musical and visual style. In 2002’s Tropical Truth Veloso shared the movement’s goal to celebrate multiple facets of high and low Brazilian culture, and blend it with outside cultural influences, like rock.


 1968's classic  Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis  was an experimental collaboration between the most prominent  Tropicália  artists.

1968's classic Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis was an experimental collaboration between the most prominent Tropicália artists.

Some of the key albums that epitomized the style included the following: 1968 collaborative album (Costa, Gil, Os Mutantes, Veloso and Zé) Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis whose cover echoed Sgt. Pepper; individual debut albums by Gil, Os Mutantes, Veloso and Zé in 1968; Rogério Duprat’s single album A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat; Gal Costa’s sophomore set in 1969, a year that also welcomed Tropicália sets from Jorge Ben and Os Brazões who interpreted songs by Ben, Gil, and Zé. In 1969, the government arrested and imprisoned Gil and Veloso, and expelled them from Brazil. They both relocated to London, though they eventually returned to Brazil in the early 1970s.


 Gilberto Gil's 1968 album had a strong psychedelic flavor that reflected the influence of British and U.K. rock on Brazilian musicians.

Gilberto Gil's 1968 album had a strong psychedelic flavor that reflected the influence of British and U.K. rock on Brazilian musicians.

Despite such setbacks several classic albums continued to expand the style in the early 1970s including Os Mutantes’s 1970 album A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado (The Divine Comedy, or I’m Kind of Spaced Out); Veloso’s 1972 set Transa, which mixed Brazilian and reggae elements; and Gil’s Expresso 2222, a blend of U.S. funk and rock recorded in 1972.  By 1973, the movement ebbed, but almost all of the musicians associated with Tropicália have had enduring careers. Costa, Gil and Veloso each have eclectic careers defined by relentless experimentation. Os Mutantes’s Rita Lee went on to a fruitful solo career as Brazil’s “first lady of rock” and members continued performing and recording. Similarly, other MPB era singers celebrated among Brazilians gradually saw their music gain international recognition. For example, jazz musicians and vocalists interpret songs by Lins and Nascimento routinely. Lins’s “The Island,” “Love Dance,” and “Velas” are contemporary standards. Nascimento’s harmonic sophistication, heard on songs like “Travessia (Bridges),” has drawn jazz musicians to play on his albums and cover his songs.

Post-1970s Brazilian pop

Since the military regime’s reign ended and democracy returned in 1985, socioeconomic and racial divides have grown more pronounced.  Contemporary rock music’s greatest impact was reflected in the rise of Brazilian bands that mimicked the style of American and British bands, and the popularity of the inaugural Rock in Rio festival in 1985 which attracted an estimated 1.5 million attendees. Many have argued that rock primarily reflects the tastes of middle-class Brazilians and because Brazilian musicians are content to duplicate established styles, it has not served as a springboard for innovation.


 Bebel Gilberto's 2000  album  Tanto Tempo  was a popular crossover album that modernized bossa nova through electronic produciton elements. 

Bebel Gilberto's 2000  album Tanto Tempo was a popular crossover album that modernized bossa nova through electronic produciton elements. 

The notion of a national music that would unite the country, the way samba once did, seems increasingly elusive in such a culturally fragmented nation. Though contemporary artists like Bebel Gilberto, whose popular 2000 set Tanto Tempo fused bossa nova with electronica, and Ivete Sangalo, a leading voice of the Axé style and the country’s biggest pop singer currently, are beloved, regional genres continue to serve as key sites of musical innovation. Contemporary artists are continually fusing Brazilian musical traditions with elements of genres like funk, hip-hop, reggae, rock, and soul to create new musical hybrids.


 The group Nacão Zumbi, led by the charismatic Chico Science, was one of the leading proponents of the Mangue Beat scene that emerged from Recife in the 1990s.

The group Nacão Zumbi, led by the charismatic Chico Science, was one of the leading proponents of the Mangue Beat scene that emerged from Recife in the 1990s.

Out of the economically depressed communities in Recife, performers like the bands Mundo Livre and Nacão Zumbi pioneered the “Mangue Beat” sound in the early 1990s. The music derived its sound from artists modernizing the African based percussive sound of maracatu fused with elements of hip-hop, rock, and the bedrock of Brazilian music, samba. Chico Science, the lead singer of Nacão Zumbi was an especially charismatic and influential singer who influenced future Brazilian superstars like singer and actor Seu Jorge. Science died from an automobile accident in 1997, but remains a highly revered figure.  Lenine is a Recife native who established himself as songwriter in the 1980s before achieving stardom as a performer with 1997’s O Dia em qu Faremos Contato and he too has succeeded through combining maracatu with rock, hip-hop, and contemporary production.

Brazilian interpretations of hip-hop music have captured the experiences of the underclass in São Paulo. Much like U.S. hip-hop the music resonates for its social function, which has elevated groups like Racionais M.C’s to national prominence. Unlike the U.S., however, hip-hop is not a mainstream crossover genre. The same is true of hip-hop originating from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Performers like MV Bill and MC Playboy gained listeners through using hip-hop as a vehicle to illuminate the realities of favela life. Rio’s musicians also adapted and transformed American funk. Since the late 1980s, funk parties have defined the nightlife in the northern suburbs of Rio especially for young people. The deeply resonant pulsating sounds of Miami bass became especially popular in the 1990s. Because of middle class associations of funk with the lower classes, and a 1992 beach riot between young people, the style grew increasingly more isolated to Rio’s ghettos. There is even an underground version called proibidão (highly forbidden) that is technically illegal but circulated on the black market. Funk balls gradually shifted from spaces of confrontations between rival gangs to free parties with a more relaxed social atmosphere.

In 1993, Rio’s military police “avenged” the death of four policemen, in what is referred to as the Vigário Geral Massacre, by massacring 21 people randomly in the Vigário Geral favela. This dampened the spirits of the community, but an organization called AfroReggae emerged from this tragedy as a positive social project. The organization began as a band that fused Brazil’s core rhythm, samba, with hip-hop, funk, and reggae, and expanded it to include training opportunities for young people to participate in dance and percussion groups.  In Rio, samba persists as a rich source of inspiration for artists like Marcelo D2 who mixes samba and hip-hop. As well as samba revivalists such as the Orquestra Imperial big band, formed in 2002, which has sparked renewed interest in samba from younger generations of listeners.   

In Salvador, the capital of Bahia, samba-reggae has thrived as a dominant musical style since the 1980s. MPB and tropicália legend Gilberto Gil was a reggae enthusiast who integrated the sound into his music and gradually the style caught on, especially in the 1970s when black Brazilians become intentional about celebrating their African heritage. The group Olodum is one of samba-reggae’s leading exponents, and gained international fame performing on Paul Simon’s 1990 album Rhythm of the Saints and on Michael Jackson’s 1996 song “They Don’t Care about Us.” The band also sponsors a percussion school for children (Escola Olodum) and an experimental theatre group (Bando de Teatro). Axé, a style blending samba, reggae, ijexá (a rhythm derived from candomblé ritual music), and frevo (a fast, syncopated marcha originating in Recife) was a style mastered by Olodum. The genre’s forerunner was Luiz Caldas who had a proto-Axé hit with 1985’s “Fricote” that gained broad distribution and popularized the style.  Axe is primarily celebratory dance music, performed at Carnaval, and was later popularized in the 1990s by artists like Daniela Mercury, Margareth Menezes, and Ivete Sangalo who sang in Banda Eva before going solo and becoming Brazil’s biggest pop performer.

 Luiz Calda's 1985 album Magia laid the groundwork for the Salvador based Axé style through the popular single "Fricote."

Luiz Calda's 1985 album Magia laid the groundwork for the Salvador based Axé style through the popular single "Fricote."


Brazilian popular music continues to mine the richness of the country’s African heritage most notably through multiple adaptations of samba. Though no Brazilian style has captured international attention with the sweep of bossa nova, Brazilian musicians have listened widely and found creative ways to respect their traditions and extend them with complementary styles. The result is a continuous interplay of the past and the present, with an eye toward the future.  


Coda: Some of the more progressive voices in contemporary Brazilian pop that I did not explore in depth include the following: Arnaldo Antunes, Carlinhos Brown, Marisa Montes, talented solo artists who also collaborate as the band Tribalistas. The recordings of Vanessa da Matas, Mariane de Castro, Zelia Duncan, Seu Jorge, Nando Reis,and Maria Rita are also notable examples of accomplished and respected current musicians.  Happy listening! Special thanks to my colleagues Carolina Castellanos and Luis Apolinario Johnson for their insights and recommendations. Thanks to Carlos Gardeazabal Bravo for sharing the Pitchfork video.

Recommended Resources

Recordings (Formats vary; some are in CD form but many are available digitally and/or via streaming services):

Note: The majority of the recorded output of the musicians I reference above are in print and available for listening. For the sake of brevity, I list a few key albums that represent a genre or subgenre well. Many of these have also shaped my own understanding of bossa nova and post-bossa nova music, though it is an ongoing listening process!

Bossa Nova

·         Chega de Saudade (1959) (João Gilberto)

·         Orfeu Negro soundtrack (1960) (Various artists)

·         Getz/Gilberto (1964) (Stan Getz & João Gilberto f/ Astud Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim)

·         Elis & Tom (1974) (Elis Regina & Antonio Carlos Jobim)

·         Antonio Carlos Jobim: The Man from Ipanema (1995) (Antonio Carlos Jobim; box set)


·         Travessia (1967) (Milton Nascimento)

·         Somos Todos Iguais Nesta Noite (1977) (Ivan Lins)

·         Nada Sera Como Antes/Nothing Will Be As it Was (1990; compilation of Regina’s interpretations of Milton Nascimento’s songs recorded from 1966-78) (Elis Regina)


·         Tropicália: ou Paris et Circenis (1968) (Various artists)

·         Gilberto Gil (1968) (Gilberto Gil)

·         Os Mutantes (1968) (Os Mutantes)

·         Tom Zé (1968) (Tom Zé)

·         Gal Costa (1969) (Gal Costa)

·         A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat (1969) (Rogério Duprat)

·         Jorge Ben (1969) (Jorge Ben)

·         Os Brazões (1970) (Os Brazões)

·         Expresso 2222 (1972) (Gilberto Gil)

·         Transa (1972) Caetano Veloso

Mangue Beat

  •   Samba Esquema Noise (1994) (Mundo Livre S/A)
  •  Da Lama ao Caos (1995) (Nação Zumbi)
  •  Fuá na casa de CaBRal (1998) (Mestre Ambrósio)
  • Baião de Viramundo (2000)  (Various Artists )
  • Cordel do Fogo Encantado (2001)  (Cordel do Fogo Encantado)
  • Original Olinda Style (2003) (Banda Eddie)
  • Certa Manhã Acordei de Sonhos Intranquilos (2009) (Otto)

Contemporary Bossa Nova and MPB

·         Dia em qu Faremos Contato (1997) Lenine

·         Juventude/Slow Motion Bossa Nova (2001) (Celso Fonseca and Ronaldo Bastos)

·         Tanta Tempo (2000) (Bebel Gilberto)

·         Samba Esporte Fino (2001) Seu Jorge

·         Brazilian Classics (2003) (Eliane Elias; compilation)

·         Cantando Historias Ivan Lins (2004) (Ivan Lins)


Brazilian Hip-Hop

·         Holocausto Urbano (1990 EP) (Racionais MC’s)

·         Raio X Brasil (1993) (Racionais MC’s)

·         Traficando Informação (1998) (MV Bill)

·         Á Procura da Batida Perfeita(2003) (Marcelo D2)


·         Magia (1985) Luiz Caldas

·         A Música do Olodum (1992) (Olodum)

·         Ivete Sangolo (1999) Ivete Sangolo


Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (Ruy Castro, translated by Lysa Salsbury, Acapella Books, 2000)

The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, Revised and expanded edition, Temple University Press, 2009)

Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil (Caetano Veloso, translated by Isabel de Sena, edited by Barbara Einzig, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)


This is Bossa Nova: The Histories and Stories (Directed by Paulo Thiago, 2016)

Brasil! Brasil! Episode Two: Tropicália Revolution (BBC, 2007):

Brasil! Brasil! Episode Three: A Tale of Four Cities (BBC, 2007):

Favela Rising [focuses on AfroReggae] (Directed by Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist; produced by Sidetrack Films and VOY Pictures, 2005)

The Story of Tropicália in 20 albums (Pitchfork, 2017):

Web Resources:

Sounds and Colours website:



The story behind the rhythm: Notes on a Brazilian love affair, Part 1: Samba

Nearly 15 years ago I was listening casually to the lovely songs on jazz singer Susannah McCorkle’s exquisite album Sabia in my car, when the song “Bridges (Travessia)” transfixed me. The nakedness of its emotions, the way its melody unfolded, its subtle rhythmic pull, and McCorkle’s acute delivery of its lyrics felt different from many of the American popular songs I adored. From studying the liner notes, I learned about its composer Milton Nascimento, which led me to pay more attention to other Brazilian musicians such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ivan Lins and Elis Regina. Soon, music originating from Brazil became an obsession.

I began my process by listening to some obvious Brazilian “classic” vocalists, like Astrud Gilberto (“The Girl from Ipanema”), and contemporary singers, like Bebel Gilberto and Celso Fonseca. Many of my favorite American vocalists recorded Brazilian Portuguese language songs in English, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Roseanna Vitro, which helped make the songs more accessible. Some of my favorite singers also recorded in Portuguese including McCorkle and Karrin Allyson.  Listening opened my mind to delving more deeply into the history and context of the music. For example, I learned that the entrancingly melancholic harmonies and bittersweet lyrics I enjoyed in songs like “Bridges” and ballads like “Once I Loved” and “Meditation” exemplified the aesthetics of saudade. I also realized I was murky about the relationship between samba and bossa nova. Speaking with friends conversant in Portuguese and Brazilian culture, I learned that there were generations of post-60s and post-bossa nova Brazilian musicians ripe for discovery.

I willfully took the plunge and began reading more about the roots and evolution of Brazilian pop, which has helped me appreciate the music, the people, the culture and the country beyond the songs. In a sense, I feel like I am falling in love all over again. For U.S. listeners milestones like 1959’s Black Orpheus soundtrack, 1962’s Jazz Samba album, by Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, and 1964’s iconic “The Girl from Ipanema” are key moments of exposure to Brazilian pop. However, the story goes back much further.

The Birth and Evolution of Samba

Brazil was under Portuguese rule until 1822. One of the key elements of West African culture that slaves maintained were Yoruba religious and spiritual traditions which morphed into the Candomblé religion in Brazil. 1871’s Rio Branca Law (Law of the Free Womb) aimed to protect the newborn children of slaves but was a stopgap measure until slavery was finally abolished in 1888. Many of those who were enslaved maintained some “Africanisms,” such as music, which led to indigenous song forms and styles like the lundu song form and circle dance, and later the maxixe which mixed lundu with elements of polka and Cuban habanera. Brazil’s first recording was a lundu based composition, 1902’s “Isto E Bom” (This is Good).

Many former slaves migrated from Bahia to Rio, especially the Praça Onze area.  Neo-African cultural elements survived through female elders (“tias”) of these communities. The roots of samba grew out of a community of musicians who socialized at the home of Tia Ciata Ruo Visconde de Inhauma. The musicians who hung out were versed in multiple forms, including lundus, maxixes marchas, choros, and batuques, and ultimately shaped samba. 1917’s “Pelo Telefone (On the Telephone),” sung by Afro-Brazilian musician Donga, was the first officially registered samba composition. Sambas are highly percussive songs where handclapping or drums, and percussion (batucada) carry the main rhythm. Key characteristics of sambas were 2/4 meter with an emphasis on the second beat, a stanza and refrain structure, interlocked syncopated lines in melody and accompaniment, and a responsive interplay between percussion and voices. Two of the most important early samba composers were flutist and arranger Pixinguinha and pianist Sinhô known as the “King of Samba” in the 1920s.

 Sheet music for 1917's "Pelo Telefone" sung by Donga.

Sheet music for 1917's "Pelo Telefone" sung by Donga.

In the Estácio neighborhood of Rio, near Praça Onze, a generation of composers (“sambistas”) emerged who expanded and refined the form experimenting with notes, tempo, harmony, and lyric possibilities. Musicians experimented via Escola de Sambas (“samba schools”) groups of musicians who were the equivalent of musicians’ clubs that composed songs for Brazil’s annual Carnaval celebration. The combination of compositions by composers like Ismael Silva, Bide, Nilton Marçal, and Armando Marçal, and interpretations by vocalists like Mário Reis, Francisco Alves, and Carmen Miranda played an important role in solidifying samba as the national music of Brazil in the 1930s. This was also paralleled by a conscious effort by the highly controversial President Getúlio Dornelles Vargas to unify the nation and build a national culture through media, especially radio. Thus, the government, which had been stigmatized samba for its black roots, appropriated samba for its national identity.

As sambas gained popularity, various samba subgenres and styles emerged including samba-canção which emerged from more upscale neighborhoods in Rio and had a more melodic and harmonically advanced approach than typical sambas. Composers Noel Rosa, Braguinha, and Lamartine Babo, exemplify this style. Dorival Caymmi was the premier singer, songwriter, and musician to exemplify the style, as well as to master many other forms. His harmonic sensibility and advanced gutiar playing shaped the bossa nova that emerged in the mid-1950s. Samba-exaltaçãos, focused on the country’s beauty and richness, also emerged via composer Ary Barroso most famous for writing “Aquarela de Brasil” (“Brazil”). As sambas grew more popular, including being featured in films, and attracting new listeners and composers who blended it with other forms, purists began to rally around traditional samba. In the late 1950s, traditional samba thrived in the morros, the hills surrounding Rio, which also birthed the samba de morro style.  Cartola, Clementina de Jesus, and Nelson Cavaquinho exemplified this approach.

 Composer Ary Barroso wrote many of Brazil's most popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s in the s amba-exaltaçãos  style. His most notable song is "Aquarela Do Brasil" known to English speakers as "Brazil."

Composer Ary Barroso wrote many of Brazil's most popular songs of the 1930s and 1940s in the samba-exaltaçãos style. His most notable song is "Aquarela Do Brasil" known to English speakers as "Brazil."

 Actress and singer Carmen Miranda became the greatest popularizer of Brazilian crossover music via film and Broadway performances in the late 1930s-mid 1940s. She is pictured here circa the 1940s without her iconic costumes and jewelry.

Actress and singer Carmen Miranda became the greatest popularizer of Brazilian crossover music via film and Broadway performances in the late 1930s-mid 1940s. She is pictured here circa the 1940s without her iconic costumes and jewelry.

Sambas transformed Carnaval, which in turn elevated the ongoing development of samba. The samba schools that began in the late 1920s became national institutions and sambas gradually displaced ranchos and marchas as the most Carnaval song forms. Samba de blocos, played by blocos de empolgacaos, typically close Carnaval parades.

The mid-1960s-early 1970s is the “modern” samba era where new generations continued to employ the form as a creative source. Singer/songwriters like Martinho da Vila wrote shorter and more colloquial sambas called samba-enredos. The 1970s also birthed the pagode movement. Pagodes were parties where people played samba, and within these parties musicians incorporated new instruments. Zeca Pagodinho and Jorge Aragão were key pagode voices. Dudu Nobre continued the style for new generations. Vocalists like Clara Nunes, Alcione, and Elza Soares, were also popular and respected singers who continued to maintain samba’s relevance. Other styles included samabandido (“bandit samba”) which depicted life in favelas and incorporated morro-based slang, and pop sambas which replaced the percussive style of pagode with funk rhythms, electronic instruments and more sentimental lyrics.

 Singer-songwriter Martinho da Vila pioneered the samba-enredo form in the late 1960s, and is a popular musician known for exploring Brazil's musical richness, especially its African roots.

Singer-songwriter Martinho da Vila pioneered the samba-enredo form in the late 1960s, and is a popular musician known for exploring Brazil's musical richness, especially its African roots.

 Elza Soares began recording in 1959 and remains an active singer and performer who continues to thrive singing samba based music.

Elza Soares began recording in 1959 and remains an active singer and performer who continues to thrive singing samba based music.

Samba was integral to shaping future Brazilian genres including bossa nova, tropicália and música popular brasileira (MPB). A variety of social and political factors informed the birth of these genres. Next month I will continue to delve into these more contemporary Brazilian musical styles. Until then, please allow some of the samba recordings listed below to enter your ears and move your bodies, and check out some key educational resources.

 Beth Carvalho was one of the pioneering voices in the pagode samba movement that emerged in the late 1970s.

Beth Carvalho was one of the pioneering voices in the pagode samba movement that emerged in the late 1970s.

Recommended Resources

Recordings (Formats vary; some are in CD form but many are available digitally and/or via streaming services):

Early samba


Raízes do Samba (2000, EMI)

Nelson Cavaquinho

Raízes do Samba (2000, EMI)


Noel Rosa (composer and vocalist):

Noel Rosa: Versões Originais Vols: 1-5 (Featuring performances by Almirante, Francisco Alves, Carmen Miranda, João Petra de Barros, Mario Reis, and more, 2014)

Tributo a Noel Rosa Vol. 1 (Ivan Lins, 1997)

Tributo a Noel Rosa Vol. 2 (Ivan Lins, 1997)


Ary Barroso:

Ary Barroso em Aqueralas, Volume 1 (Various Artists)

Ary Barroso em Aqueralas, Volume 2 (Various Artists)

Carmen Miranda:

The Brazilian Bombshell: 25 Hits 1939-1947 (ASV/Living Era)

The Ultimate Collection (Prism Leisure, 2001)

Samba de morro

 Composer Cartola was a composer and performer whose samba de morro songs are covered widely.

Composer Cartola was a composer and performer whose samba de morro songs are covered widely.


Raízes do Samba (2000, EMI)

Clementina de Jesus:

Euo sou o samba (EMI, 2005)


Martinho da Vila:

Focus: O Essencial De Martino da Vila (BMG, 1999)

Memorías de um Sargento de Milícias (BMG, 1971)

Lusofonia (Sony Music, 2000)

Modern Samba Queens

Clara Nunes:

Alvorecer (Odeon, 1974)

Clara Nunes 2 Em 1 [compiles 1974’w Alvorecer and 1981’s Clara] (EMI, 2005)


A Voz do Samba (Phillips, 1975)

Elza Soares:

Eusou O Samba (EMI, 2005)


Beth Carvalho:

De Pé no Chão (RCA Victor, 1978)

No Pagode (RCA Victor, 1979)

Grupo Fundo de Quintal:

Samba e no Fundo de Quintal (RGE, 1980)

Zeca Pagodinho:

Zeca Pagodinho (RGE, 1986)

Millennium: Zeca Pagodinho (Polygram, 1999)

Jorge Aragão:

Verão (1983)

Jorge Aragão: Millennium - 20 Músicas Do Século XX (Polygram, 2000)

Dudu Nobre:

Dudu Nobre (BMG Brasil/RCA, 1999)


Raça Negra:

Banda Raça Negra (RGE, 1991)

 The band Raça Negra is a neo-pagode band that added a modern sheen to the samba style in the 1990s.

The band Raça Negra is a neo-pagode band that added a modern sheen to the samba style in the 1990s.


The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Poplar Music of Brazil (Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, Revised and expanded edition, Temple University Press, 2009)

The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and National Identity in Brazil (Hermano Vianna, University of North Carolina Press, 1999)

Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil (MarcA. Hertzman, Duke University Press, 2013)

Creating Carmen Miranda: Race, Camp, and Transnational Stardom (Kathryn Bishop-Sanchez, Vanderbilt University Press, 2016)


Brasil! Brasil! Episode 1: From Samba To Bossa (BBC, 2007)


Carmen Miranda: Beneath the Tutti Frutti Hat (BBC, 2007):


Mario Reis: The Mandarin (Director, Júlio Bressane, 1995)

Noel Rosa: Noel, o Poeta da Vila (Director, Ricardo van Steen, 2007)


She writes the songs: Recognizing the art of female songwriting

The music industry undervalues female identified songwriters, which is not surprising since our society undervalues women. Though composer-performers like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro, as well as songwriters in country music (e.g. Dolly Parton, Cindy Walker, Tammy Wynette) and jazz (Peggy Lee, Abbey Lincoln),  have inspired tribute albums female musicians are primarily viewed as vocalists. When jazz vocalist Cleo Laine released Woman to Woman in 1988, it stood out because it was comprised of songs written entirely by women. Though she noted in the liner notes that there was no shortage of songs to choose from, critics, historians, and audiences view composing primarily as a male occupation. Interpretive singers in a variety of genres cover songs by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, George and Ira Gershwin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder, John Hiatt, and Bruce Springsteen so frequently that it is never remarked upon unless it is a conceptual project by a female singer. For example, Tori Amos’s Strange Little Girls (2001) and Leann Rimes’s Lady and Gentlemen (2011) albums both flipped genders. Audiences seem to accept passively the idea that male songwriting lens are somehow universal, but this is patently false and distorted. Because of this perception female writers struggle for visibility and affirmation.   


 Brenda Russell, composer of "If Only for One Night" and "Piano in the Dark," is among pop music's most gifted yet unheralded songwriters. In addition to pop songs she has also written music for the musical version of The Color Purple and soundtracks.

Brenda Russell, composer of "If Only for One Night" and "Piano in the Dark," is among pop music's most gifted yet unheralded songwriters. In addition to pop songs she has also written music for the musical version of The Color Purple and soundtracks.

Intrinsic to these issues is whether there is something distinctly gendered about songs, if not in the music, then in the stories they tell. I am less concerned with literal anthems like Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” or Chaka Khan’s hit “I’m Every Woman” than subtler material. This is a difficult issue because while it’s incredibly essentialist to label a chord progression as “masculine” or “feminine,” especially since these notions are constructs, we can more easily tie gender to certain kinds of lyrics.  Female identified people are more likely to experience certain things socially, and female produced art reflects this reality. For example, we believe the multitude of singers who have interpreted the French ballad “My Man (Mon Homme)” (largely associated with Billie Holiday) because domestic violence against women is so prevalent. Similarly, while sexual assault affects people of multiple genders, it is (sadly) predictable that two female composers, Lady Gaga and Diane Warren, wrote the song “Til It Happens to You” as the anthem to the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault in higher education, which affects women disproportionately.


 Pop music is rarely as vulnerable and feminist in its sensibilities as the searing material on Cash's classic 1990 album. 

Pop music is rarely as vulnerable and feminist in its sensibilities as the searing material on Cash's classic 1990 album. 

Slightly less severe, but still relevant, are the sexual dynamics of intimate relationships. Rosanne Cash’s 1990 album Interiors, largely organized around her troubled married Rodney Crowell, has some of the most searing songs, musically and lyrically, in the contemporary folk-country canon. On “Dance with the Tiger” when she sings “Don’t give me your life/It was a brilliant idea inventing the home/Creatures of habit, American fools/Reaching for the stars while we’re standing on stools” the strains of idyllic American domesticity resonate. Though a man co-wrote the song, and might weigh in on marital challenges, the song feels even more poignant when juxtaposed with “Real Live Woman.” Here, she rejects her perceived role, as subservient to a man’s success and sings (probably to Crowell, who co-wrote the song!) “I don’t want to be a man/I just want to be what I am/I don’t want to hide my light so yours keeps shining.” I can only imagine the dinner table conversation about this song, but its premise is distinctly feminine in perspective.


 Williams's 1988 album featured songs later covered by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, among others.

Williams's 1988 album featured songs later covered by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Tom Petty, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Loveless, among others.

I hear similar experiential richness in in Lucinda Williams’s “Passionate Kisses” which was a Grammy winning hit for Mary Chapin-Carpenter in 1992. Women typically push society to view them complexly, hence the protagonist’s plea, “Is it too much to demand/I want a full house/And a rock and roll band.” I cannot imagine a male–identified person singing these verses because women bear the burden of child raising and managing their homes. They deserve the chance to also rock out. What moves me about this song is its plaintive affirmation of women as complete human beings, not just mothers or wives. Similarly, country composer-performer K.T. Oslin, who I have written about previously, has a knack for telling poignant truths about her experience. In 1988’s “This Woman” she is unapologetic about nomadic sexuality, “This woman’s in love with you baby/This woman don’t think you can do no wrong/But I feel it’s only fair to warn you/This woman don’t stay in love long.” 2001’s “Live Close by Visit Often” is equally honest in its jocular and jaundiced declaration, “I'm not lookin’ for a husband/Found out the hard way it doesn't work for me/I need a friend/I want a lover/I have to be alone occasionally.”


 Ida' Cox's 1924 composition "Wild Women" is still covered by musicians in the 21st century.

Ida' Cox's 1924 composition "Wild Women" is still covered by musicians in the 21st century.

Though we primarily associate the singer-songwriter era with the 1970s era onward women have voiced their distinct experiences for over a century.  For example, Bessie Smith’s’ classic migration tale, 1923’s “Far Away Blues,” speaks of black women migrating to the Chicago area only to miss certain elements of the South. “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” first written and performed by classic blues singer Ida Cox in 1924 encouraged women to have fun independently of their relationships, which was unique in the 1920s. Maria Muldaur covered Smith’s song in 2001, and Francine Reed and Saffire The Uppity Blues Women are among the many who have interpreted “Wild Women.” In both instances, a classic message of female experience transcended a single era.


 International superstar Gloria Estefan has written almost all of her material over her 30+  years musical career.

International superstar Gloria Estefan has written almost all of her material over her 30+  years musical career.

Because so many people associate female musicians with vocal performance many may not realize that famous vocalists, such as Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Adele, have written or co-written many, or most, of their recorded output. This does not make them inherently superior to non-writing singers, nor does it necessarily qualify them as feminists. But, it’s possible that the next hit you hear is written by a woman who is writing from a specific, rather than generically “universal” place; one that may require you to listen more intently.


 DeShannon has written many of pop music's most beloved songs including "Bette Davis Eyes," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "Needles & Pins," and "When You Walk in the Room," among others.

DeShannon has written many of pop music's most beloved songs including "Bette Davis Eyes," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," "Needles & Pins," and "When You Walk in the Room," among others.

30 highly recommended albums for further listening featuring exclusive, or predominantly, female-authored songs, include the following:

1.      The Delta Sweetie (1968), Bobbie Gentry

2.      Eli & the 13th Confession (1968), Laura Nyro

3.      Tapestry (1971), Carole King

4.      Court & Spark (1973), Joni Mitchell

5.      The Changer & the Changed (1975), Cris Williamson

6.      Gail Davies (1978), Gail Davies

7.      Rickie Lee Jones (1979), Rickie Lee Jones

8.      The Wanderer (1980), Donna Summer

9.      This Woman (1988), K.T. Oslin

10.  Lucinda Williams (1988), Lucinda Williams

11.  Woman to Woman (1988), Cleo Laine

12.  Porcelain (1989), Julia Fordham

13.  Have You Seen Me Lately? (1990), Carly Simon

14.  Heartbeats Accelerating (1990), Kate & Anna McGarrigle

15.  Interiors (1990), Rosanne Cash

16.  You Gotta Pay the Band (1990), Abbey Lincoln

17.  Ingénue (1992), k.d. lang

18.  Diva (1992), Annie Lennox

19.  Maiden Voyage (1998), Nnenna Freelon

20.  The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), Lauryn Hill

21.  Bitter (1999), Me’shell N’degeocello

22.  Come And Get Me: Jackie DesShannon Best Of...1958-1980 (2000), Jackie DeShannon

23.  Words & Music, Volume 1 (2000), Jill Scott

24.  M!ssundaztood, (2001), P!nk

25.  Tropical Brainstorm (2001), Kristy MacColl

26.  Ultimate Collection: Brenda Russell (2001), Brenda Russell

27.  Verse (2002), Patricia Barber

28.  Essential Dolly Parton (2005), Dolly Parton

29.  I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005), Bettye LaVette

30.  Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women: Deluxe Edition (2006), Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women


 Jazz singer Cleo Lain's 1988 album features interpretations of songs written by female composers inclduing Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Melissa Manchester, among others.

Jazz singer Cleo Lain's 1988 album features interpretations of songs written by female composers inclduing Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, and Melissa Manchester, among others.


Ear adjustment: Exploring the untold history of Black Music

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter inaugurated June as Black Music History Month, which President Barack Obama renamed African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009. Though the concept of “black” music could apply to any kind of music performed by black people technically, we usually tend to understand it in terms of genre. Artists associated with hip-hop, R&B, reggae, blues, jazz and gospel are usually the starting point for conversations about intersections of blackness and musicianship. The historical emergence of these genres from black subcultures, ranging from the derivation of gospel from the West African “ring shout” to the post-industrial urban context that wrought hip-hop, defines this iconic association.

Yet, just as blackness as an identity, culture and realm of experience, must be understood beyond conventional wisdom, the music created by black musicians must be understood complexly. Music is a compelling space for uncovering obscure, or forgotten, artists whose stories tell a fuller richer story of blackness than usual.


 Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

 For example, most listeners primarily associate country music with Southern white musicians and audiences. Though many people are aware that artists like Ray Charles and Charley Pride broke color barriers in country music, and Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker has become a solo country star, there’s more to the story. The 1998 three-disc set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music introduced me to important figures rarely discussed in mainstream black music conversations. For many years, I thought jazz musicians were at the forefront of musical integration in the recording industry. In fact, Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, an integrated string band comprised of black fiddler Jim Booker, guitarist John Booker, banjo player Marion Underwood, guitarist Willie Young, and occasional vocalists, did the first racially integrated recording sessions in a studio in 1927.

 The geographic and cultural proximity of black, white and Native American musicians living in the South birthed a more diverse brand of Southern music than most people realize. There was a proliferation of string bands, like the Georgia Yellow Hammers, the Dallas String Band, James Cole String Band, and others, as well as solo performers.


 The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first African-American musician associated with the Grand Ole Opry’s radio program, from 1926-41. He also appeared on the Opry’s 1939 television debut on NBC’s Prince Albert Show. Despite these monuments he was not accepted fully, and experienced being referred to as the Opry’s “mascot” as well as the denial of service at restaurants and hotels when her toured small towns. While racism is a familiar trope in discussions of black musicians of his generation, less familiar is the way blacks who grew up in the Southern U.S. listened to country music and often emulated radio artists. Bailey’s grandfather was a fiddler, and Bailey got his big break after white string band leader Dr. Humphrey Bates recommended him to the producer of the WSM “Barn Dance” radio show, which became the Opry. Though these cross-cultural alliances were not necessarily typical of the industry a gradual cross-pollination took shape especially in the post-WWII era. Many of the musicians included on the set discuss their appreciation for the music and lyrics of country music, viewing it as a parallel to the blues. There are also important voices represented on the set, like Dobie Gray (1940-2011; famous for 1973’s “Drift Away”) and Bobby Hebb (1938-2010; who wrote the 1966 hit “Sunny”), who have defied genre rules throughout their careers and challenged conventional wisdom about the sound of black music.


 Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Folk music is another genre with a strong black presence. The more recent success of Rhiannon Giddens and her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a great link to the past. Before performers like Giddens, and Tracy Chapman, whose 1988 debut was an unexpected pop hit, there was the legendary Odetta (1930-2008). Classically trained as teenager Odetta performed in musical theater as a young adult before turning to folk music in the 1950s. After establishing herself on the nightclub circuit she became a prolific recording artist recording for the Tradition, Vanguard, Riverside and RCA Victor labels. Her recordings and performances, were complemented by her vigorous civil rights activism. Odetta was considered the premier folk singer of her generation and influenced performers like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, and Carly Simon.


 Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Other black superstars of the 1950s who influenced folk performers include Harry Belafonte (1927-present) whose dynamic performances and popular recordings of folk music from Jamaica, Trinidad, Peru, Israel and other countries made him the first world music superstar. He was also integral to introducing U.S. audiences to the South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), known as “Mama Africa”. A gifted singer, composer, and actress, and a fierce anti-apartheid activist, Makeba began performing in the U.S. in 1959 and began a successful recording career on RCA in 1960. She committed her life to her music and her activism and performed until the very end of her life.


Just as the southern rural black experience is rarely discussed, beyond country blues and delta blues musicians, the presence of blacks in the chic, sophisticated world of New York cabarets, a thriving cultural space form the 1930s-1960s is also elided. Cabaret singing is an intimate style of singing performed by stately but highly distinctive, often idiosyncratic singers who frequently focus on the Great American Songbook and obscurities. Well-known black singers like Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and Eartha Kitt have roots in cabaret. There are, however, are many others who never crossed over to mass audiences through TV or film.


 Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

One of cabaret’s most successful performers, Barbra Streisand began her career performing at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village. But long before her there was Mae Barnes (1907-96) an African-American singer and dancer who was so popular the club was referred to as the Barnes Soir. Combining elements of Broadway, Vaudeville, and jazz in her live performances, and famous for her wit she was highly revered and rarely recorded.

 Mabel Mercer (1900-1984), born to an African-American father and English mother, grew up in Europe before immigrating to the United States in the 1940s. Famous for her perfect diction, rolled “R”s, and incomparable readings of lyrical nuances she was adored by composers like Bart Howard (“Fly me to the Moon”) and Cole Porter. Mercer was the queen of cabaret who influenced singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and held court at legendary clubs like Tony’s, Ruban Bleu, the Byline Room, and others. The St. Regis Hotel named a room after her in 1975; ion 1984 Stereo Review magazine established the Mabel Mercer Award to honor outstanding musicians, and in 1985 the Mabel Mercer Award Foundation was established.

 If Mercer was the Queen of cabaret Bobby Short (1926-2005) was the undisputed King. Born in Danville, Illinois he was a gifted pianist and distinctive vocalist who became a successful child performer in Chicago and then began performing throughout the U.S. and Europe. Known for his throaty voice, vast repertoire, and rapier wit he became a mainstay at the Café Carlyle from 1968-2004, and enjoyed a long recording career at Atlantic Records. He also recorded five albums for Telarc Records from the 1990s-2000s. Other notable black cabaret figures include Josephine Baker, Thelma Carpenter, Jimmie Daniels, and Leslie Uggams.

 Contemporary black performers with a background in cabaret include actor-singer Darius de Haas, Broadway actor Norm Lewis, Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald, and vocalist Paula West. Since cabaret is more of a performing genre than a recording field many cabaret-oriented singers are also actors. Related to cabaret then, is the history of black performers who have excelled in musical theatre on Broadway. This distinguished roster includes Belafonte, who won a 1954 Tony for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Sammy Davis Jr. who was acclaimed in 1964’s The Golden Boy, Eartha Kitt, nominated for Tonys for her performances in 1978’s Timbuktu! and 2000’s The Wild Party, Billy Porter’s role in 2013’s Kinky Boots, Lewis and McDonald, who performed together as leads in 2014’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and  the more recent triumph of actor-singer Leslie Odom Jr. in his Tony winning role in Hamilton.


 Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Classical music is another arena where the contributions of black musicians are often overlooked. In the vocal field female singers Marian Anderson (1897-1993), Leontyne Price (1927-present), Jessye Norman (1945-present), and Kathleen Battle (1948-present) are important figures with popular notoriety. Notable male voices include legendary actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1903-98) who originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess in 1935 as well as the role of Stephen Kumalo in Kurt Weill’s 1949 production Lost in the Stars. Some more contemporary figures include baritone Jubilant Sykes, and more emergent male vocalists including Jamaican born baritone Rory Frankson, lyric tenor Lawrence Brownless, and tenor Issacach Savage.


 Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

In the classical instrumental field there are many black musicians worth discovering such as Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, as well as notable organizations dedicated to diversifying the field. For example, the Sphinx Organization’s focus on training and developing underrepresented young musicians has culminated in the renowned Sphinx Virtuosi comprised of Black and Latino musicians. The website AfriClassical was also begun in 2000 to chronicle the history of people of African descent in classical music.


 Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

 Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Any legitimate effort to explore black history comprehensively requires exploring unheard and overlooked figures. The relevance of Black History Month lies in the ongoing opportunity to expand our understanding of the stories, experiences and achievements of blacks in America. Music is an important dimension for the music itself, and the histories that inform its creation and reception. It is no coincidence that many of the musicians listed above, like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Belafonte, Odetta and Makeba are as well known for their activism as their music. Theirs is a story worth exploring for the way it speaks to a larger richer story of the historical contours of blackness in America.

Additional resources:

AfriClassical website:

"Black Men Storm the Gates of Classical Opera":

Mabel Mercer Foundation:

"Six African American Country Singers Who Changed Country Music":

Sphinx Organization:


Whose history? Re-evaluating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual December announcement of new inductees inevitably stirs strong reactions ranging from “It’s about time!” to “Huh?” The 2017 class includes Joan Baez, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Journey, Pearl Jam, Tupac Shakur and Yes. Commenting on this list is almost pointless since it represents a pattern: The Hall of Fame is a long standing source of confusion. For example, despite the “Rock and Roll” genre distinction pop singers (e.g. Madonna) and rappers (e.g. Run DMC) have been inducted as performers. Given this loose approach to genre it’s surprising that more performers who straddle genres, like Willie Nelson, are not inducted. 




Since 1986 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted new classes of performers, as well as non-performers, whose innovations and influences shaped in rock and roll, a genre that has existed since 1955. At least this is what people think this mission represents the Hall’s aspiration. If you actually review the Hall of Fame’s stated criteria you learn that innovation is not necessarily its center.

 Here’s how the Hall works: Each year a nominating committee (whose composition and criteria are murky) selects the nominees and circulates ballots to 900 + historians, music industry personnel, and musicians, including all previous Hall inductees. In 2012 this process was opened up to the general public whose ballot is reported weighed equally with the expert/insider ballot. The top five vote getters are inducted from these ballots and history is made.


 In addition to having 25 years of recording history, inductees must demonstrate, “unquestionable musical excellence and talent” and have significantly impacted the “development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.” These are four very different criteria that may explain the diffuse, inconsistent and strangely ahistorical nature of the Hall. Excellence and talent are broad and highly subjective concepts, though they imply remarkable musical technique and skill. Development and evolution speak to performances and/or recordings that have shifted the direction of rock and roll, and subgenres, significantly, which is an interesting challenge for a 60-year-old genre. Among these criteria preservation is the most concerning and conservative since it essentially rewards performers who replicate the rock and roll familiar.

 Delving into the Hall’s stated criteria negates the notion that the Hall is primarily interested in recognizing innovative musicians.  Apparently musicians who are simply “excellent” and “talented” are eligible, and perhaps weighted equally with those who have helped the genre “evolve/develop” and/or those who are fastidious students (imitators?) of rock, thus preserving its essence.

 The criteria above are relatively easy to apply to some of the Hall’s earliest inductees such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. Post 1950s popular music really would sound quite different without the influence of these pioneers. Still many of the Hall’s choices continually raise questions about how far the criteria can be stretched. To return to my earlier note, how much innovation has actually occurred in 60s years, as opposed to imitation and repetition?

 Perhaps performers’ inductions should be labelled by the development, evolution and/or preservation criteria? For example, the British punk group the Sex Pistols were inducted in 2006.  The Pistols were created by Malcolm McLaren to make more of a social statement than a musical statement evidenced by their lack of technical proficiency. Though the group caused an uproar in Britain, and excited U.S. music critics, they had little commercial impact in the U.S. and self-destructed quickly after two albums. Few would argue that they were musically excellent. They were musically and socially disruptive. And unquestionably influential to future punk bands in terms of attitude, style and tone. Since they turned punk inside out (briefly) and shaped other groups the development and evolution criteria apply. (In true punk fashion, lead singer Johnny Rotten wrote to the Hall rejecting the induction and the ceremony referring to the genre and the hall as a “piss stain” compared to the band.


 Punk-rock band Green Day was inducted in 2015. Are they pioneers or  better thought of as preservationists of a tradition? (Photo source: Photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty).

Punk-rock band Green Day was inducted in 2015. Are they pioneers or  better thought of as preservationists of a tradition? (Photo source: Photo credit: Mike Coppola/Getty).

Comparatively, in 2015 Green Day, who were influenced by inductees like the Clash (2002), the Ramones (2003), and the Sex Pistols (2006), were inducted. Green Day is very enjoyable (to my ears), is probably the most commercially successful punk-oriented band ever, and has influenced younger groups like Sum 41. But calling them innovative is a stretch. They’re a preservation group; they mirror the essential style of their punk and rock predecessors with more finesse and pop savvy.

 Reading further, the Hall’s website unpacks musical excellence noting that, “Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills.” Though slightly more detailed, it, too, juxtaposes elements that can easily contradict each other.

For example, the first rock oriented band to integrate a substantial horn section was Blood, Sweat, & Tears. Yet they are not in the Hall of Fame, but Chicago, who replicated B, S &T’s horn driven sound, was inducted in 2015. Chicago has a longer discography, and managed to have more hits—their top 40 radio reign spans from 1970-91 compared to 1969-71 for B, S, & T. But, if influence and innovation were most salient B, S &T would have been inducted before Chicago. In this instance Chicago’s record sales and endurance were deemed more important than their originality.

The history issue is a particular inconsistency for the Hall. To its credit the Hall does induct performers listed as Early Influences including jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong, honky tonk legend Hank Williams, and “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington. But some of rock and roll’s most direct musical influences, such as jump blues singer Ella Mae Morse and white 50s R&B singer Johnnie Ray, are strangely absent. Wanda Jackson, who debuted in the 1950s is the “Queen of Rockabilly,” is particularly odd omissions. She was inducted in 2009 as an Early Influence, rather than as a performer, and decades after the male peers of her generation. 

Sexism also remains a sticky point for the Hall. Rock and Roll has long been viewed as a bastion of male privilege in lyrics, attitude and access. Female musicians have routinely shared horrific experiences of being demeaned, underestimated, and denied as artistic equals (and superiors!) to male musicians in the industry. Sadly, the Hall tends to replicate these patterns.

·         Among the 31 classes of inductees there have been 10 years without any female inductees, including 1986 and, most recently, 2016.

·         Among the 34 female inclusive inductions 15 were for solo performers, 15 were awarded to groups with male and female members, and four were awarded to all-female singing groups. Comparatively, 84 solo male performers and 104 all male groups were inducted. Thus 15% of solo artists in the Hall are female and 85% are male. Among single sex groups 4% are all-female and 96% are all-male. These huge disparities reflect the inherent gender bias of what several people, including musician Peter Wylie and writer Kelefah Sanneh, have termed as “rockism”: the presumption that rock music, understood narrowly, is automatically deemed superior to pop which typically includes genres with more female performers (e.g. disco, girl groups).


 Women are vastly underrepresented among the Hall of Fame's inductees. (Image source:

Women are vastly underrepresented among the Hall of Fame's inductees. (Image source:

Anecdotally speaking some of the oversights are surprising. Despite their impact on 1980s rock Pat Benatar and Tina Turner (solo) are strangely absent from the Hall, yet their relative male equivalent of the era, John Mellencamp is in. Male singer-songwriters like Billy Joel, Elton John, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor have been inducted, but Jackie DeShannon and Carly Simon are missing. Other names that come to mind include Joan Armatrading, Kate Bush, The Carpenters, Rosanne Cash, Whitney Houston, Rickie Lee Jones, Bette Midler, Maria Muldaur, Nina Simone, Phoebe Snow and Dionne Warwick. Some names for future Early Influences might include Odetta, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as well as Morse.

 I applaud the Hall for recognizing the ways many of the pioneering musicians who emerged in the mid-1950s created distinct new genres and sub-genres, and expanded on them. The gradual mainstreaming of R&B and country elements into the pop mainstream, the rise of youth cultures, and the ways post-1950s music has periodically articulated the sensibilities of members of the social and cultural underclass are important cultural achievements. Ones that have transcended the United States.

 But, in trying to take this music “seriously” the Hall has made regrettable procedural choices that continually taint its efforts including failing to define genre boundaries clearly, relying on ambiguous criteria, and operating from a teleological perspective that rock ‘n’ roll is something that inevitably evolves. The yardstick of time seems inadequate. How far does rock ‘n’ roll stretch? Beyond post-punk/modern rock and hip-hop rock hybrid groups like Linkin Park what does rock innovation look like over the last 25 years? Hip-hop inspired New Jack Swing, Hip-Hop Soul, and the retro-futurist Neo-Soul genre, but, again, what other musical influences will enable R&B to grow into something fresh? Hip-Hop began as urban dance music but broadened its scope to include novelty songs, crossover pop-rap, rap-rock, political rap, gangsta rap, etc. How many Public Enemies or Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliots are on the horizon?

 In its current form the Hall is more accurately understood as a Popular Music Hall of Fame that honors performers in a variety of popular genres who have achieved commercial success and a modicum of critical respect.  This inevitably reflects the interests of the record labels and music industry executives who fund the Hall, as well as popular commercial tastes, rather than something as intangible as innovation.  In other words, it’s a predictable entity that has recognized some great musicians, but rarely challenges conventional wisdom about who matters in pop music or offers alternate ways of thinking about music history.

 The Hall would be more impactful if it organized musicians more strategically. Based on the Hall’s current logic Buddy Holly, Darlene Love, Fleetwood Mac, The Clash, Madonna, and Yes are essentially equals who shaped and influenced Rock and Roll in some amorphous way. Compare this to a system that identified and group performers more categorically. In the context of post-1955 music there are discernible pioneers (e.g.  Berry, Holly, Wanda Jackson, Little Richard, Presley) who established genres and sub-genres; musicians who expanded its formal vocabulary (e.g. Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Laura Nyro); and performers (e.g. Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day) who reliably and competently extended established styles.  

 These three areas theoretically prevent one from drawing false equivalencies because there’s an inherent connectedness and historicity to each. This proposed approach also allows us to distinguish the depth of contributions among musicians. The pioneer category would always be a smaller category since few musicians have established actual genres, and the vocabulary category would only be slightly larger. The genre extension category is in some ways the most diffuse because it’s more about competence and endurance than innovation, but still has potential to recognize artists of substance.


The Hall of Fame, and Museum, are well-intentioned but not quite realized endeavors. There are plenty of alternative spaces like the Experience Music Project, The Rock & Soul Museum, and The Stax Museum, as well as other Halls of Fame including the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame and NEA Jazz Masters ceremony.  But, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Museum, are the most prominent sites of rock history. They remain subjects of criticism because people who love rock and roll want its best elements elevated. The “official” nature of the Hall cements what many fans consider to be the elevation of the blandest and most commercially palatable aspects of rock. Further, the bureaucratic nature of both entities belies the rebellious spirit historically associated with rock and roll. Beyond this element, they represent an intriguing paradox: how do you publicly celebrate and historicize an artistic form that began diffusely as a rebellious secret?