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 samba-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?




2016’s Raves & Faves

During December writers in a variety of mediums (i.e. blogs, websites, and publications) commonly offer lists of the Best in a variety of genres including books, film and music. I enjoy participating in this tradition, but the commonality of the practice does not mean one’s choices must also be common. I love learning about notable art I may have overlooked and the best lists can illuminate these finds. As much as I have loved pop music historically, and as much as I will always relish a great hook and catchy melody theoretically, in practice I’ve mostly broken up with mainstream popular music. This past year Adele, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Drake and Rihanna have dominated the commercial realm and the pop music discourse. Because of the extensive public coverage they receive I feel perfectly comfortable turning my attention to more obscure artists and less obvious music in my recap of the year’s best music.

 In academic terms “popular” (as opposed to pop) music simply refers to broadly accessible musical genres that do not typically require formal training from its practitioners or its audience. Thus blues, country, folk, gospel, hip-hop, punk, R&B, rock and even jazz, (which has sadly drifted into commercial obscurity) are popular genres. Classical music falls outside of this realm because conservatory training is essential to performing it though there are rare exceptions. When music crosses over to a large audience, which typically happens through a combo of promotion and sales, it simultaneously becomes “pop” even if it is stylistically grounded in a tradition. Eminem is stylistically hip-hop but saleswise he represents big pop. 

Pop music is a strangely diffuse/elastic term in the digital music era. The alleged digital democratization of music has actually created a chasm. Radio playlists are more rigid then ever limited the possibility of being exposed to new music that isn’t already earmarked. Since fewer risks are being taken music is more compartmentalized. You’re more likely to hear something off the beaten musical path on NPR or a podcast than a radio station. At this stage ballads, music recorded by singers over 35, blues, folk and jazz genres, and other such characteristics are dated and essentially mean automatic segregation. Brick-and-mortar record stores have been mostly displaced by streaming services, computers, MP3 players and smartphones. If you are not tech savvy and lack the financial means to constantly purchase and update these technologies regularly you have to work harder to discover new music made for and by adults. 

Essentially the music I find myself appreciating most is popular music technically just not commercially popular music. Caveats aside, 2016 has produced some superb new music and music related content in other genres. The year has also seen the passing of many significant musicians, amplifying the importance of keeping our eats open for innovation.

2016’s Finest “Semi-Popular” Music for Adults:


Secular Hymns by Madeleine Peyroux (Verve, 2016): After years of struggling to find her own voice Peyroux has landed firmly in the eclectic pop territory that defines great singers like Ray Charles, Maria Muldaur, and Charlie Rich. Recorded in an English cathedral built in the 12th century Peyroux and her bandmates cook up a rich musical stew featuring inspired interpretations of songs by important American songwriters including Stephen Foster (“Hard Times”), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“Shout Sister Shout”), Allen Toussaint (“Everything I Do is Gonh be Funky”) and Tom Waits (“Tango Till They’re Sore”). Peyroux has never sounded funkier or more full of life, and neither have the songs.

Son Little by Son Little (Anti-, 2015): Son Little (Alan Livingston) is a Philadelphia based singer, writer and musician whose eponymous album (released in October 2015) is “beyond category,” to quote Duke Ellington. Little synthesizes electric blues, gospel, and folk music, with elements of R&B and hip-hop into a highly personal sound. For people who find modern R&B too slick and traditional electric blues too old-fashioned he’s a revelation. More than an alternative he offers new possibilities. Most thrilling is “The River” a kind of erotic neo-gospel tune with a thrilling pulse and urgent vocal.

Sting Variations by Tierney Sutton Band (BFM Jazz, 2016): Tierney Sutton, and the Tierney Sutton Band, ranks easily among the most creative vocal jazz artists.  Highly conceptual, she has shifted her focus from familiar pop and jazz standards toward transforming songs from folk music and pop music into jazz vehicles. The Band’s latest coup translates songs by Sting, including his solo work and songs from The Police, into surprising interpretive pieces that reveal their own elasticity and the flexibility of what constitutes jazz. Their dynamic reharmonization of “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” mash-up of “Fragile” with the bossa nova classic “Gentle Rain”, and the lullaby-like approach on “Every Breath You Take” are stunning. An endearing triumph from an innovative group of musicians.

Tillery by Tillery (Tillerymusic, 2016): Rebecca Martin, Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens are progressive solo jazz vocalists who pool their collective talents together on Tillery. They harmonize very seamlessly on a diverse repertoire that includes an endearingly romantic take on Prince’s “Take Me With U” and The Jacksons’ “Push Me Away” and originals. The spacious arrangements, played by an acoustic band (including Martin on guitar, ukulele, and charango; Parlato on charango; Stevens on guitar, and all three on hand percussion; and Pete Ende on piano and keys; Mark Giuliana on drums, Larry Grenadier on bass), have a haunting folk quality. Their vocal blends are consistently tuneful and their individual vocal qualities shine. A genre buster, rather than a predictable vocal jazz album, it is beautifully enchanted.

The Mood That I’m In by Marlene Ver Planck (Audiophile, 2016): Marlene Ver Planck is an 83-year-old interpreter who first debuted in 1955 but the the clarity of her lovely voice and the astuteness of her interpretations is timeless. On this sumptuous ballads collection, the veteran interpreter, backed by a jazz trio with trombone, sax, and flute solos, sings to you with the perfect combination of melodicism, intimacy, wit and rhythm. The title track is a lovely declaration of amorous desire, and the “It Started All Over Again/Second Time Around” medley is delightfully autumnal. Whether you call it cabaret, jazz or a combination, it’s a masterpiece of adult sensuality.

Harlem on My Mind by Catherine Russell (Jazz Village, 2016): Catherine Russell is the best fuser of classic blues and swing jazz sensibilities in vocal jazz. Her latest Harlem on My Mind focuses on songs from or in the spirit of the Golden Age of Harlem Jazz. As always she is a swinging interpreter who emphasizes melody and lyrics with acute rhythmic finesse. She balances familiar tunes like a breezy horn spoked “I Can’t Believe You in Love with Me” and a balmy “The Very Thought of You”, with cheeky tunes like “You’ve Got the Right key but the Wrong Keyhole” a fun Louis Armstrong number she milks perfectly. Russell also brings fresh perspective to solid but lesser-known songs like “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” Like Ethel Waters and Maxine Sullivan she is a quietly confident interpreter who is one with her material and band, and performs with a masterful yet disarming ease.

Take Me to the Alley by Gregory Porter (Blue Note, 2016): Porter continues to be the deepest soul brother in jazz. Though he is an excellent interpreter, he is at his best as a composer of songs that allow him to tell his story. Take Me to the Alley he uses his commanding yet sweet baritone to sing about relationships (“Insanity,” “Don’t Be a Fool”), social values (“French African Queen”) and spirituality (the title track) seamlessly and sensually.  


Live at Rosy’s by Sarah Vaughan (Resonance Records, 2016): In March Resonance Records issued Sarah Vaughan’s unreleased 1978 concert Live at Rosy’s recorded with her trio Paul Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) at the New Orleans club. In addition to singing signatures like “Send in the Clowns” and “Poor Butterfly” she surprises with a playful version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” a lovely rendition of the ‘70s standard “Everything Must Change,” a swinging “A Lot of Livin to Do” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and hilarious patter. 34 years into her career her she has a slightly raspy patina but her falsetto flourishes and rhythmic instincts are as fresh as ever.


The Complete Trio Collection by Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt) (Warner Brothers/Asylum/Rhino, 2016): In 1987 country neo-traditionalist Harris, country legend Parton, and eclectic pop/rock star Ronstadt released their passion project Trio featuring three-part harmony interpretations of songs as disparate as Jimmie Rodgers’ “Hobo’s Meditation,” the 1950s rock and roll hit “To Know Him is to Love Him,” and Linda Thompson’s “Telling Me Lies.” Each was unified by rotating lead vocal duties and traditional acoustic string backing with limited drums. The result was an acclaimed and popular Grammy winning album that sounded more like it came from the 19th century than the late’80s. They followed it up in 1999, with Trio II, featuring songs from the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, and Neil Young, among others. Rhino Records has remastered and reissued them together with a third disc called Unreleased and Alternate Takes.  The original 1987 and 1999 albums are excellent introductions to the interplay of bluegrass, folk, and country music. The third disc is a revelation: Their versions of the 1880 hymn “Soft and Tenderly” and Pops Staples’s “You Don’t Knock” are powerful country-gospel. In addition to these gems, and alternate takes, the sets collect previous collaborations in one place including “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Mr. Sandman.” The liner notes are informative and conversational, and the remastering is excellent. Re-listening to these tunes and the rarer material points to a time in country when more artists felt compelled to take risks.

Most Notable Music on TV:

As I discussed in August’s blog (“The other great musical of 2016”) the CW’s acclaimed musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the medium’s most innovative programs. The show’s creative team brilliantly translates contemporary narrative sensibilities, including irony and metacommentary, into a compelling form combining with the verve of Broadway with the accessibility of pop culture. The show’s second season premiered in October 2016 and is even bolder, brasher and truer. I am not alone in my praise: the show has been nominated for multiple industry awards and won two Emmys (for camera editing and choreography), Critic’s Choice, Golden Globe and Television Critics Association (TCA) awards for lead actress Rachel Bloom, and a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Series-Long Form.

Most Notable New Books on Music:

Two superb memoirs released this year illuminate the different ways music can shape our sense of self in our respective families.

In Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues and Coming of Age Through Vinyl (Beacon Press, 2016) music critic Rashod Ollison artfully details the solace and meaning of soul music and gospel provided for him during a difficult childhood in Arkansas.  His father lovingly introduced him to the pleasures of classic soul but left a void by abandoning him, his mother and his two sisters abruptly.  These trying circumstances increased pressure on his mother, who struggled financially and emotionally, and had to constantly move the family around. Ollison also contended with homophobic bullying and social isolation. Fortunately, his love of literature and music sustained him, helping him gain clarity about his family, his community, and himself.

Legendary singer Carly Simon grew up in a privileged East Coast family surrounded by parents, uncles, siblings, and friends whose confidence and expressiveness dwarfed the shy Simon who had a was physically awkward and had a lisp. During dinner her mother suggests she sing to overcome her lisp, and as detailed in Boys in the Trees: A Memoir (Flatiron Books, 2015) an emergent musician was awoken. Rather than reflecting on her whole career Simon tells a suppler story. She outlines her family roots, describes her gradual breakthrough in the folk and rock music scene, and reflects on her complex marriage to ex-husband James Taylor, ending her story around 1983. The candor and vulnerability of her best compositions defines her literary approach as well.


BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:

Non-Fiction: Clara Bingham’s Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year American Lost its Mind and Found its Soul (Random House, 2016) is an insightful, meticulously researched, and tightly organized oral history of the 1969-70 period. It easily ranks among the more essential chronicles of a period when progressive movements transformed the nation culturally but struggled to convince a broad swath of culture progressive politics. Bingham’s interviews with a range of first hand participants from the antiwar, black power, women’s rights, and counterculture movements, including actors Peter Coyote and Jane Fonda, activists William Ayers, Daniel Ellsberg, Ericka Huggins and musicians like Stephen Stills, as well as photojournalists and former government agents present a complex and comprehensive view of the sociopolitical magnitude of this pivotal year.   

Essay collection: Acclaimed novelist (Salvage the Bones, Where the Line Bleeds) and memoirist (Men We Reaped: A Memoir) Jesmyn Ward, taking inspiration from James Baldwin’s seminal The Fire Next Time, gathers some of America’s finest poets, essayists, memoirists and scholars to address race in the 21st century on in the wide ranging collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Beyond the diversity of genres itself lies the joyful eclecticism of perspectives assembled. Highlights include Kiese Laymon’s loving depiction of his Grandmamma and the music of OutKast; Emily Raboteau’s visual essay on urban campaigns to increase civic awareness; Kevin Young’s hilariously acerbic takedown of faux-black Rachel Dolezal; and Edwidge Danticat’s “Message to My Daughter,” not to mention Ward’s reflection on the complexity of her DNA. Ward has assembled is a rich and colorful symphony of voices with great potential to transcend the era.


In Moonlight, a spacious, lyrical meditation on identity, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins presents one of the most complex and breathtaking portraits of African American male subjectivity ever filmed. The narrative vocabulary of American films has historically confined black men to a narrow range of stereotypical roles. By comparison, Moonlight provides a refreshingly intimate portrait of black malehood through focusing on the experiences of Chiron a young man who is navigating a complex mix of race, class, and gender social forces alongside other younger and older men in his community. Jenkins, cinematographer James Laxton, and composer Nicholas Britell employ a rich assortment of cinematic visual and aural techniques to tell a lean but purposeful story. The film is anchored by stellar performances from a gifted trio of actors, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who play Chiron at different ages, as well as excellent supporting performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Andre Holland.


Notable 2016 Musician Deaths (a selective list)


Mose Allison (jazz)

Ernestine Anderson (jazz/R&B)

David Bowie (pop/rock)

Otis Clay (R&B)

Leonard Cohen (pop/rock)

Natalie Cole (jazz/pop/R&B)

Glenn Frey (pop/rock)

Merle Haggard (country)

Bobby Hutcherson (jazz)

Sharon Jones (R&B)

Billy Paul (pop/R&B)

Prince (funk/pop/R&B)

Prince Be (hip-hop)

Leonard Russell (pop/R&B)

Toots Thielemans (jazz)

Maurice White (pop/R&B)

Buckwheat Zydeco (zydeco)




Songs for Our Now: A playlist for survival and centeredness

Songs for Our Now: A playlist for survival and centeredness

In the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, where I’ve lived most of my adult life, November is always a transitional month. At times it even inspires a kind of cyclical mourning. As the leaves fall, the temperatures drop, and the landscape’s colors morph from vibrant postcards into barren withered browns we, too, shift in posture and color. In the present moment many Americans are searching for the most resonant emotional chords.   Navigating the changing scenery also means being enveloped by the swirl of emotional uncertainty. We are simultaneously seeking solace and inspiration to cosset us from acute feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness, and ambivalence.

Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
(“Autumn Leaves” English Lyrics by Johnny Mercer)

Music is, naturally, an almost undefined, intangible space of reckoning. Certain melodies, words, and tones can cohere into irresistible musical forms that move us unexpectedly.  When the right pitch catches us we feel heard; it grounds us and we are poised for new vistas. In this spirit I offer an anthology of songs that sings to us in this particular moment. I was inspired by food writer extraordinaire Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, a generous collection of interwoven stories and recipes documenting losses in her life that gave her life meaning.  Rather than seeking music that merely enrages or soothes, I have chosen music representing a vast palette of emotions.

“O’ Death” (sung by Marion Williams): For creating room to moan, cry, grieve, and lament.

“Autumn Leaves” (sung by Eva Cassidy): For capturing the bittersweet flavor of fall and the uncertain season ahead.

“I’m not ashamed to sing the blues” (sung by Bobby “Blue” Bland): For those moments when you must express your truth in an effort to transcend it.

“Day Dream” and “Wave” (sung by Sarah Vaughan): For when we need to escape into sonic reverie, the kind only available to us through the most sublimely luxuriant and enveloping voices.

“O Shenandoah” (sung by Rene Marie): For reminders of the beauty of the American landscape even in the ugliest of times.  

“City of New Orleans” (sung by Allen Toussaint): For times when we must remind ourselves of the interconnectedness of communities, cities, and states beyond region.

“I Can See Cleary Now” (sung by Holly Cole): For times when you need beams of hope that sustain you, even if such optimism feels illusory.

Can you hear the words being whispered
All along the American stream
Tyrants freed the just are imprisoned
Try to rekindle the patriot’s dreams
(“Patriot’s Dream” Lyrics by Arlo Guthrie)

“Patriot’s Dream” (sung by Jennifer Warnes): For those seeking a reason to fight for democracy that feels under siege.

“American Tune” (sung by Paul Simon): For when you must press on in spite of it all.

“Ol’ Man River” (sung by Aretha Franklin): For acknowledging the unheralded dignity and sacrifices of hard working people especially those from the social and economic underclass.

“My Petition” (sung by Jill Scott): For when we are longing for eloquent challenges to blind faith.


I want fresh fruit, clean water,
Air that I don’t see
I want the feeling of being safe on my streets
I want my children to be smarter than me
I want, I want to feel
I want to feel, I want to feel free
For real ya’ll
I’m just telling you so you know
I want to, I want to have faith in you
I really do but you keep lying to me
It hurts
(“My Petition,” Lyrics by Jill Scott)

My aim is restorative listening. Please share, re-mix, re-sequence, and listen to whenever and however you choose.


A Gay Old (and New) Time: What do “gay music” and “women’s music” mean now?

Several years ago I made a playlist called A Gay Old Time—a tongue-in-cheek reference to its mix of jubilant pop tunes from openly gay (e.g. k.d. lang, Pet Shop Boys, George Michael) and iconically gay (e.g. Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand) artists. It’s the kind of CD I wanted to play in the car or the office, or at home that might lead a casual listener to say “Those songs are so gay!” in a jocular appreciative manner. I made the playlist as a celebration and nod to the resonance of singers as disparate as Judy Garland and ‘80s British pop group The Communards to multiple generations of LGBTQ listeners.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

An old mix CD still resonates today.

In the early 2000s when I was working on my dissertation on gay and lesbian musicians I read Christopher Nealon’s fantastic book Foundlings which explores gay and lesbian cultural identity before Stonewall and the politicization of LGBTQ identity. A central thread of his argument is the role culture played in bonding queer people before there was a formal movement. In other words the way a man dressed, the language he used, the neighborhoods he socialized in and, most centrally, the culture he consumed signified to other man that he was “family” before people formally “came out” and identified using terms like gay, lesbian, transgender, etc.

Though I was born seven years after Stonewall this relates to my own story in many ways. When I was in kindergarten I knew I was gay, though at the time people used euphemisms that suggested was an identity necessitating discretion. Looking back this moment of personal awareness was less a point of pride or shame than a moment of recognition. Like many kids I suffered the indignities of bullying and teasing for being “different” for part of my childhood and adolescence from peers, and tacitly from the mainstream society. Rather than consulting with friends and family, who did not relate and would not have been helpful, or seeing a therapist I went to college. There, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a critical mass of people who were open in their intimate identities and secure in themselves and best of all, accepted. One of the ways I bonded with my queer peers was via taste. At the time thumping club music suing by exuberant divas was “gay” as was music from previous generations including disco, cabaret, and torch songs by classic divas like Judy, Bette, Lena, and Liza, among others. Alongside these female icons who were lionized by generations of gay men previously, there were male performers like Elton John, George Michael, Pet Shop Boys, whose were gay and whose music resonated on a variety of levels for the mainstream and for queer men. Erasure, Jimmy Somerville, Freddy Mercury and Queen, and Sylvester were among the other men who fit this even if I didn’t listen to them a great deal.

The notion of “gay music” is limiting in many respects and overlooks the broad appeal of these artists, but it would be a mistake to discount the ways the music referenced above resonated and still resonates for many queer people for reasons beyond identity politics. For me some of the appeal of the great divas and some of the more expressive male vocalist like Mercury is their willingness to break through the box of male emotional suppression. Their art gives listeners permission to experience their emotional lives in an expressive form uninhibited by social limitations.  Through them your sense of being disrupts gender norms by offering different expressive possibilities. I believe gender is very much a social construct of how to be (as do many gender theorists!) and even the most conventional gender normative straight man desires to transcend expectations and delve into more vulnerable and communications forms of expression than they are allowed. Music is a distinct texture that permits these performances. Many men are scared by the idea of admitting they like music marked as “gay” (e.g. dance music, torchy songs) but secretly find immense freedom and pleasure in it because they get to inhabit themselves differently.

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

Williamson's 1975 album is a classic in "women's music."

When I was writing my dissertation, which addresses gay and lesbian musicians who began their career prior to gay liberation I explored that life and careers of female musicians like Laura Nyro and Dusty Springfield, and the history of performers associated with the “women’s music circuit like Margie Adams, Cris Williamson, and Holly Near, among others. This also involved exploring the complex relationship younger generations of female musicians have to lesbian feminist politics and the gender politics of the genre which was self-contained, independent and aspired to employ female identified musicians, engineers, promoters, distributors, record label heads, and other personnel.

Many younger women found the music lacking in fun and the politics too rigid and separatist, especially the exclusion of men from the recording process and transwomen from women’s music festivals. These are understandable critiques though we must always look back contextually. Concepts of safety from patriarchy and violence have evolved for many women, and many women who identified with second wave and lesbian feminism have grown more comfortable with the idea that male identified people can be supportive allies. Few social movements endure without evolving and the women of the circuit deserve this critical consideration. Minimally we should appreciate the women’s music circuit as a pioneer of the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) aesthetic and appreciate the space they were trying to create—one that valued women as musical artists before this was fashionable in the mainstream, as well as recognized their unique social struggles.

I remember purchasing Williamson’s beautiful 1975 singer-songwriter album The Changer and the Changed, a classic of women’s music, and thinking it if weren’t for sexism and homophobia she would have been as big commercially as many of her singer-songwriter peers in the ‘70s. Regardless she is “ours” in the sense that she spoke to who many women of the era, and even as a queer man I relate easily to her words and melodies.

Of course queer people listen to more than disco, folk music, torch songs, or showtunes. The world is a big place that belongs to queer people as much as anyone and queer taste is eclectic. It’s only slightly surprising that there are openly gay country singers like Brandi Carlile, Billy Gilman, Steve Grand, Ty Hendon and Chely Wright.  Mainstream culture informs queer lives and the mainstream has been queered. You don’t have to be queer to hear Williamson just open. As a culture we have inched forward in recognizing the fluidity of gender and gradually made may core social institutions more welcoming and inclusive. Though homophobia and genderphobia sadly manifest themselves in many forms on a regular basis for many people they have become less socially acceptable in unexpected places like the military, professional athletics and civil society. Like many of my sistren and brethren I worry that some of the intracultural touchstones that made queerness a poignant open secret for many of us have lost their luster. Rather than relegating them to some less enlightened past I prefer we think of them as part of a cultural continuum. Even though the world changed after Stonewall there was a lot of possibility, but public and clandestine, that occurred before the birth of a formal “named” movement and the threat of exclusion still looms. Though singers like Tyler Glenn, Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, and Chely Wright are “out” now they were not at the beginning of their careers. This is important because it’s a sign that we are not in a post-gay world. Identity still matters, and fears of not being accepted or even of being pigeonholed and narrowcast are surely part of their process and that of other public queer figures. Not to mention the pressure of being viewed as an icon or role model, even if they do not feel confident in their identities or conversant about LGBTQ history and politics.

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

Johnnie Ray's 1951 LP set a high watermark for emotive male singing at the time. Ray was bisexual and his sexuality was a source of constant media speculation. 

This summer I put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book Rocking the Closet: Queer Male Musicians and the Power of the Closet. I conclude the study, which focuses on men from the ‘50s, including Liberace, Johnnie Ray, Little Richard and Johnny Mathis, by interrogating the contemporary assumption that they were closet cases who had to be ambiguous and that today’s musicians are more liberated. The times change but the pressures to confirm to others’ ideas about who and how we’re supposed to behave endures. Their journeys differ than those of Glenn or Ocean, but each case raises questions about how being different can be a source of both intrigue for audiences and frustration for musicians.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album Blond is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

Frank Ocean's 2016 album Blond is part of recent discussions about 21st century queer music.

My A Gay Old Time playlist still makes me smile (and dance!) because it’s an inside joke and a public statement, not to mention a really fun listening experience. What I also enjoy about it is that it, and what it represents, feels as alive today as it did many years ago. When these songs play queer people recognize themselves, many straight people relate to the joy within, and maybe everybody dances in parallel or together. No one is giving up who they are but understanding themselves more complexly.



The Best Years in popular music?

The recent publication of David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year the Rock Exploded garnered attention recently because he argues that, “nobody imagined 1971 would see the release of more influential albums than any year before or since” (2). Of course he’s wrong, but you can read my thoughts on his book via my August 2016 Book Review located elsewhere on the blog. His argument is more than just a list of albums, but it inspired me to think about my favorites years in pop music culminating in the list below. I had a hard time choosing so I divided things into singles and albums for variety. Enjoy!



 The late 1970s is often thought of in terms of the dominance of disco but I can’t think of a year that yielded more memorable pop singles across a spectrum of genres than 1979.  Though disco yielded execrable one hit wonder type hits a number of artists like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees created a consistent group of songs in the style that have endured beyond the halcyon days of disco proving the genre is as capable of greatness as any other genre. Some disco classics from what’s sometimes called the end of disco (it wasn’t) include the following:

·         “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All the Lights”: a pretty perfect trifecta from the Queen of Disco Donna Summer

·         “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” the combustible lead single from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall

·         “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor the quintessential wounded-lover-survival-revenge anthem

·         “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out,” pillowy falsetto laden hits from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown

·         Other classic disco hits: Chic’s “Le Freak” and “Good Times”; Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”; Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

 1979 was also the year when more danceable and melodic rock music inspired by element of punk and even disco hit the radio. Blondie scored with the disco rock (rock disco) hit “Heart of Glass” as well as the searing “One Way or Another” and “Dreaming.” The Cars scored with buoyant hits like “Good Times Roll,” “Let’s Go” and “Its All I Can Do.” Joe Jackson asked “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”  and Nick Lowe observed how its “Cruel to Be Kind.”

 In the R&B world, of which many disco hits were co-members, some signature songs included sweet ballads like Earth, Wind and fire’s “After the love is Gone,” The Commodores’ “Still,” and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Turn off the Lights.” There were also funk classics like Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Rufus’s “Do you Love What You Feel.”

Great pop songs also covered a spectrum including the lusciously sung polyrhythmic “What a Fool Believes” (Doobie Brothers), the jazzy boho anthem “Chuck E’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones), and oddball songs like “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (Rupert Holmes). Country was in a syrupy crossover phase (Kenny Rogers anyone?) and a lot of rock was mired in overproduction though songs like Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” stood out from so-called “corporate rock.” 

When people complain contemporarily about the lack of variety on mainstream radio today it’s hard not to point out somewhat nostalgically that during a time when many rock critics felt like pop was losing its way the radio could accommodate songs that represented a broad quilt of tastes.

 ALBUMS: 1984

The LP was originally developed in the late 1940s for “serious” music (e.g. classical music). Then in the early 1950s popular singers released EPs and LPs with more content pushing them from singles artists to albums artists. Singers like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were pioneers who organized albums around themes. Though The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (1967) is often thought of as rock’s first “concept album” this is untrue. Plenty of prior albums were made to tell a story and convey a concept. Regardless the technical and compositional feats of Sgt. Pepper helped solidify albums as the marker of great artists in the rock era. Sure a great single was something to savor but an album showcased one’s artistry more fully.   

 I nominate 1984 as the apex of album making so far. When you survey the popular albums of the era multiple sets register as classics or near classics that defined the sound of the era. Some of the best albums include:

 1984 (Van Halen)

Big Bam Boom (Hall & Oates)

Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)

Building the Perfect Beast (Don Henley)

Can’t Slow Down (Lionel Richie)

Heartbeat City (The Cars)

Like a Virgin (Madonna)

Private Dancer (Tina Turner)

Purple Rain (Prince)


She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper)

My tastes lean toward the popular but for those who like things with more of an edge this was the year R.E.M released Reckoning and U2 released The Unforgettable Fire. For people who like the poppiest of pop Wham! released Make it Big and Huey Lewis & the News released Sports this year. For those who like it mellow Sade released Diamond Life (Happy now?).

Whereas the early 1980s meandered greatly—few great albums were released between 1980-82 it was such a transitional time in pop—1984 was a highly concentrated burst of albums that introduced new performers, solidified the strengths of veterans, and yielded music a broad spectrum of people enjoyed. Please email me your favorite year in pop music: I would love to know the year, the music, and the rationale.




The other great musical of 2016: Hamilton can’t get all the buzz this year

In January 2016 when I watched actress Rachel Bloom accept the Best Actress Comedy/Musical award at the annual Golden Globe Awards I thought here’s another “hip” show I’ve never heard of that the notoriously fickle Globes are recognizing and never thought about it again. More recently a friend and I were perusing Netflix and watched the first two episodes which were astutely funny and surprising. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not a traditional sitcom in the sense that it is over 40 minutes, had some darkly humorous overtones, oh yeah and it’s a musical sitcom. As with any great musical when emotions exceed reality characters launch into the surreal singing original songs, often with choreography, that are genius formally and as character devices.


The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be the best musical you're not watching! 

The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend may be the best musical you're not watching! 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was an idea hatched by Bloom with Aline Brosh McKenna and Marc Webb. Though there have been musical series on network television (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs on the CW) most are forgettable and/or asinine. Cop Rock anyone? Anyone? About a decade ago shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Scrubs and Psyche, had musical episodes but Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does not treat the musical format as a novelty. It’s intricately woven into the blueprint of the series and fortunately employs gifted singing actors including Broadway actors Donna Lynne Champlin and Santino Fontana.

 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was originally developed by cable network Showtime. For whatever reason the show shifted to the CW making it more accessible to a wider range of audiences. The show’s premise (humorous summarized in a brilliant Emmy-nominated theme song) is that Rebecca is a successful New York lawyer whose happiest memory is dating Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) in a summer camp as teenagers. She is miserable and ruins into him on the streets of New York. After a brief exchange he mentions he is leaving New York to live in his hometown of West Covina, California. Impulsive, desperate, and ready for a change Rebecca decides to quit the firm and move to West Covina. Despite being Harvard educated and about to make partner her divorced parents haunt her as does the reality that the real world she’s trained for is not quite as fun as camp. Embarrassed by her motives she pretends she is in West Covina on a whim which sets her up for some dramatic situations throughout the season. She immediately encounters people in Josh’s social circle and she and her co-worker develop a series of ridiculous schemes, often patterned after romantic comedies, to win Josh over. The problem for Rebecca is that Josh is already in a serious long-term relationship with the vain, unpleasant Valencia.


As the season plays out you get a nuanced understanding of each character. Josh is a happy-go lucky type but he is a suspended adolescent in many ways, and beneath the surface lies uncertainty about his career and relationship. Greg (played by Santino), Josh’s best friend is a dark character who is drawn to Rebecca and grows increasingly frustrated with her playing second fiddle to her emotions for Josh. Greg is intelligent and perceptive but family issues have retarded his progress. Her co-worker and friend Paula (played by Champlin) commands respect at the law firm where they work but is isolated at home with distracted kids and an inattentive husband.  Supporting characters include Rebecca and Paula’s boss Daryl (Pete Gardner) whose divorce leads him to other revelations, and Josh and Greg’s friends “White Josh” (David Hull) and Hector (Erick Lopez).

 Other cool things about the show: The cast is genuinely multicultural, including Indian-American, Filipino-American (Josh is Filipino-American), and Latino characters. Diversity is also integrated into the supporting characters and extras, meaning it actually resembles California.  There is also some sexual diversity, including the rare bisexual character, and ongoing integrations of religious cultures in the show. Tonally, the show has a sense of humor about itself and its characters but there is genuine drama informing the comedy making it that much funnier. Finally there are sublimely ridiculous moments like an arbitration hearing that is suspended by a judge when Rebecca accidentally sends a text to Josh. A hair metal band battle emerges over whether it’s a “Textastrophe” or “Textmergency.”


Musically the show is masterful at pastiche. I can’t think of any TV series that has employed hip-hop so cleverly including spoke-sung raps about winning over parents, the burden of large breasts, and a battle between two self-identified Jewish American Princesses.  You also get a peppy mid-tempo pop tune in the style of Huey Lewis, several jazzy tunes, including the Emmy nominated “Settle for Me,” a bombastic heal-the-world style song sung with a children’s choir, a boy band parody, and a torch song with multiple crescendos among others. Almost every song has a tongue-in-cheek meta-dimension. The songs are not only knowing send-ups of popular genres, but also comment on television itself. Television reached a golden era in the late 1990s-mid-2000s and networks and cable are trying to compete with brilliant shows like Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and Amazon Prime’s Transparent. That a smart and innovative program airs on network television is a welcome change from stale line-ups filled with crime procedurals and bland melodramas.


Broadway musicals, and their cinematic offshoots, are a distinctly American genre that defined popular music from the mid 1920s-1960s. Cast albums regularly topped the sales charts in the 1950s and 1960s, popular singers across genres sang the best Broadway melodies, showtunes were on the radio regularly, and singing actors and actresses were mainstays on television variety shows. On Broadway musicals became increasingly more expensive to stage, audiences lost their interest in film musicals in the 1970s, and audiences divided their musical tastes more diffusely than ever in the late 1960s onward. As a result few musicals, aside from megahits like Rent or films like Frozen, spawn hit songs and reach the broader public. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed hip-hop musical Hamilton has won a slew of awards, spawned a popular cast album and is being filmed for public television. Whether it results in crossover songs seems unlikely given the subject matter. Still bravo to Miranda for taking a chance, and bravo to the CW for airing the best musical outside of Broadway. The show is up for several Emmys for songwriting and choreography (airing in September) and the second season returns to air in October.       




“Contagious in His Enthusiasms”: Part 2: Pop, Rock, Country, and R&B edition

Riffs, Beats & Codas Readers: Last month I shared some of my favorite albums in a variety of musical genres in the spirit of being “contagious in my enthusiasms.” Ideally this list comes during a time when folks have a bit more leisure time. My hope is that these lists can help you build your music collection whether you like to just listen, purchase, or both. Rather than aiming for a generic canonical listing I share recordings I listen to often that have shaped my own thinking about certain genres.

This month I focus on Gospel, R&B/Soul, Singer-Songwriter Pop, Big Pop, Rock ‘n’ roll and Rock, and Country. Happy listening!

Gospel and soul music left the church a long time ago: “Race” records were a commercial niche that became “Negro” music, and were then rechristened R&B in 1949. All of these labels are limited, but over the last century Black protestant music has remained a vital source of popular music. Despite the record industry’s attempts to confine black music, and black creative artists, to niches an array of groundbreaking artists.

Gospel is the root of soul and R&B music and their derivatives.  The call and response interaction between the lead singer, fellow singers, and audiences, the use of melisma and blue notes, the use of syncopation, ecstatic gestures like falsetto notes and other musical characteristics of soul/R&B all derive from the black Protestant tradition. My favorite gospel singer is Marion Williams. Though she has the voice and technique to have become a major R&B singer she never went secular and devoted her whole career to gospel. 1992’s Strong Again is a soulful and uplifting collection of songs. You can tell Williams absorbed elements of secular jazz and blues and integrated them into the mix. She does traditional gospel fare like “Just As I Am” and “Oh Happy Day,” originals like “Prayer List,” and some secular covers including Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

The true precedent to rock ‘n’ roll is Jump Blues and the work of Louis Jordan whose prime material is collected on the excellent Let the Good Times Roll 1938-1953, is its pioneer. Jordan was a musicians, bandleader, and performer whose signatures include “Let the Good Time Roll,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and other classics. His music saw no boundaries—swing jazz, blues, gospel, and elements of vaudeville come together in his music. His repertoire is covered widely and devotees like B.B. King and Joe Jackson have recorded Jordan tribute albums.  

 R&B: In the late 1940s-late 1950s popular singers translated the passion and musicality of gospel music and its rituals into secular forms. Hence the birth of soul music. The albums below are either compilations or albums that capture the essence of R&B. 

·         Bobby Blue Bland Greatest Hits Volume 1: The Duke Recordings: A perfect introduction to the songs that made the legendary Memphis singer including “Stormy Monday,” “Who Will the Next Fool Be” and “Chains of Love.”

·         Birth of Soul: Brother Ray Charles’s initial genius flowered during his early recordings for Atlantic Records. This boxed set is the Rosetta Stone of soul featuring seminal recordings like “What I’d say,” “I Got a woman,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Night Time is the Right Time.” 

 ·         Best of Esther Phillips: Esther Phillips was a staple in the R&B market from 1949-54 performing as “Little Esther.” At that time she was often paired with male R&B singers and recorded with pioneers like Johnny Otis. She took a hiatus from recording to deal with substance abuse issues and came back in the early-60s recording for Atlantic Records from 1962-71 where she scored several R&B and pop hits. In 1971 Phillips switched to Kudu/CTI Records where her material was grittier and less poppy. She left Kudu for Mercury Records where she recorded from 1977-81. Phillips was a very versatile singer with a distinctive nasal voice, and a down-home approach to interpreting lyrics. Best, issued by Rhino Records, focuses on her 1960s recordings when she made her biggest impact with her soulful wailing sound. During her fruitful period at Atlantic Records she recorded hits like the country-soul classic “Release Me,” standards and and several classic live sets.

 ·         Chess Box: At Chess Records Etta James got the songs and arrangements that put her on the map as a major singer. Her finest album at Chess, At Last! Is a classic featuring the epic emotional discovery of the title track, her sexy take on “I Just Wanna Make Love to You,” and great performances on “Trust in Me,” and “All I Could Do Was Cry,” among others. Her Chess work has been compiled numerous times but the best place to go is the superb Chess Box. You get all of her hits, including “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Tell Mama,” key album tracks and rarities, and live performances spanning the early 60s through the early 70s. James adapted well to numerous environments and styles during her Chess tenure including soul, funk, country and the singer songwriter pop of writers like Randy Newman.

 ·         Aretha Franklin: 30 Greatest Hits: This is a flawless double-disc documenting Franklin’s rise to the Queen of Soul. Songs like “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel like a Natural Woman,” “Save Me,” etc. translated the passion of gospel into a vibrant secular style that made soul the new national cultural language.

 ·         Talkin’ ‘Bout You: Though Schuur is an acclaimed jazz singer she was deeply singers on the bluer end of the jazz spectrum like Dinah Washington and Helen Humes. 1988’s Talkin’ ‘Bout You is an endearing valentine to the interrelationship of gospel, R&B and jazz in shaping singers of the 1950s generation. Schuur confidently tackles Ray Charles, Helen Humes and Dinah Washington signatures respecting their basic blueprint but adding her own brand of soul. She also gives memorable performances of “For Your Love” and “Cry Me a River” alongside several superb originals including the levitating “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon.”

 ·         Simply the Best: Live!: Irma Thomas is the Soul Queen of New Orleans, who originated songs like “Time is on My Side,” “It’s Raining,” “Wish Someone Would Care,” “Ruler of My Heart,” which Otis reading remade as “Pain in My Heart.” 1991’s Live! Is a sizzling set covering the soul master's incredible command of soulful balladry and dance cuts. You get signatures like “Breakaway,” “Time is On My Side,” “It’s Raining” and “Wish Someone Would Care” in vibrant new arrangements. She also cooks on the near testimonial “I Needed Somebody,” a soulful “Oh Me Oh My” and two R&B medleys.  Her performance is sharp, the band is on and the audience is in love. A great career summary and introduction to her powerful style. Thomas is New Orleans royalty, and remains a vital performer.

Pop-Soul: In the early ‘60s black music’s appeal steadily grew in its appeal to a broader base of listeners. Motown’s aspiration to become the Sound of Young America was a concentrated effort to make crossover music that captured the essence of black music elements but also appealed to white listeners especially young people. Diana Ross & the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Martha & the Vandellas, and later acts like the Jackson 5 were at the forefront of this musical and cultural movement. The boxed set Motown Hitsville USA: The Motown Singles Collection 1959-71 captures the fruits of this substantial effort. Combining elements of gospel, pop, and girl group pop Dionne Warwick translated her gospel background and formal music training into one of the defining sounds of early to mid-60s pop. Her polished but emotive sound blurred the lines between black gospel and white pop into a transcendent and influential popular style via her interpretations of the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All-Time Greatest Hits highlights the cream of this sizable crop.

Southern Soul: While Motown focused on smoothing out some of R&B’s rough edges the Memphis based label Stax/Volt became the premiere Southern Soul label. Stax was home to Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Booker T & the MGs, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and various R&B voices. The double disc collection Stax 50: 50th Anniversary Celebration is an excellent overview of the label’s pivotal contributions to ‘60s and ‘70s soul and pop. After you listen to this introductory sampler you’ll definitely want to explore individual artists.

No R&B collection is complete without the graceful exuberance of Memphis Soul singer Al Green. 21 of his finest Hi Records recordings are collected on The Definitive Greatest Hits (Capitol, 2007) including his prime material from the 1970s (e.g. “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness”) and a few selections from the 2000s. 

Electric Blues: Four of my favorite electric and modern blues albums capture the blues in a variety of flavors.

·         B.B. King: MCA’s 1992 boxed set King of the Blues is a superb four disc introduction to the finest post-war blues musician of the 20th century B. B. King. King’s signature voice and virtuosic electric guitar “Lucille” are indelible signatures of contemporary popular music that have deeply shaped R&B, rock, and blues singing, playing and interpretation.

Spanning 1949-91 the set includes several rare unreleased recordings and various singles and album tracks recorded for RPM, Kent, Chess, ABC, Bluesway, and MCA.  King’s vocal tone and fluid playing are evident from the earliest tracks bit it is particularly thrilling to hear his sound grow richer over time as recording technology becomes more sophisticated and he refines his signature sound.  The set also reminds listeners of King’s skills as a composer (“Three O’ Clock Blues,” “Rock My Baby”) and his stylistic range as he tackles jazz standards, R&B, and pop with the same aplomb he brings to the blues.

Disc One (1949-66) showcases his blues roots and his important contributions to the blues and R&B fusions that shaped rock ‘n’ roll. The 1966-69 period covered on Disc Two and Disc Three’s 1969-75 showcase King adapting to contemporary rock and R&B production trends; even amidst slicker settings and trendier material King is firmly present. Casual fans will of course recognize “The Thrill is Gone” but there are abundant riches like “Nobody Loves me But My Mother” and “Ghetto Woman.” By Disc Four (1976-91), led by a live version of “Let the Good Times Roll” with protégé Bobby “Blue” Bland, he has shifted away from composing toward covers, the production is slicker than ever, and there are more collaborations (Bland, U2, Bonnie Raitt) a pattern he continued well into the 2010s.

·         Etta James: Seven Year Itch and Blues to the Bone are two excellent examples of Etta James’s singing in a blues context. Seven is a modern blues set with a strong R&B bent that finds her interpreting songs by Ann Peebles and Otis Redding in her raw, powerful style, and recording classic versions of songs like “Damn Your Eyes.” Blues is a straight up Memphis and Chicago blues with commanding performances of “Got My Mojo Working,” “Dust My Broom” and “You Shook Me” sung by James at the height of her interpretive powers.

·         Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas: Sing It! is a thrilling summit featuring three modern R&B and blues masters: Marcia Ball, Tracy Nelson, and Irma Thomas. Joyful, poignant, and soulful it features a range of songs on the spectrum including Bobby Blue Bland’s “Yield Not to Temptation,” “You Don’t Know Nothin’ About Love,” and “Love Maker.”

Philly Soul, Quiet Storm, and Retro Nuevo Soul: In the 1970s black pop diversified to include more conceptual, album-oriented music. Songs were longer, themes were even more romantic, and the production values grew more elaborate and textured. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and Donny Hathaway’s Extension of a Man are three of the best examples of this shift.

·         The social awareness, lush orchestrations, and the layered vocals of What’s (1971) make it a poignant view of its era and a sonic milestone.

·         Talking Book (1972), which features “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” was Wonder’s first full album-length display of the full range of his talent as an adult performer and opened the door to future classics like Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.

·         Hathaway is best known for his duets with Roberta Flack. His individual albums are all excellent showcases for his deep gospel roots, board stylistic range and his symphonic approach to pop. Extension (1973) opens with the amazing orchestral suite “I Love the Lord He Heard Me Cry” which segues into “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” Other highlights include the funky “Come Little Children” and a soulful “Lord Help Me.”   

·         Alongside the rise of artists feel freer to experiment were producing and songwriting teams that were also expanding the palette of R&B. Philadelphia was an epicenter of this change thanks to teams like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and Thom Bell and Linda Creed who blended strings, intricate lyrics, and funky rhythms elegantly. Collectively they wrote and produced songs for The Delfonics, Johnny Mathis, Joe Simon, The Spinners, Dusty Springfield, The Stylistics and others that epitomize the Philly Soul style. The 2008 boxed set Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia is a perfect capsule of this era which spanned from 1969-83 and continues to influence other songwriters and producers.

·         In the early to mid-1980s, after a decade dominated by disco and funk, many R&B singers decided to focus on romantic balladry that harked back to ‘60s and ‘70s romanticism, but still outfitted in sleek contemporary production. Luther Vandross and Anita Baker were the defining voices of this style. Best of Luther Vandross: The Best of Love is a classic collection that illustrates why Vandross was the most influential R&B crooner to emerge in the 1980s. He was an excellent writer of originals like Never Too Much and a superb interpreter of everything from Motown classics to more contemporary songs. The key cut is his epic “A House is Not a Home.” Baker’s 1986 classic Rapture is probably the most influential suite of romantic R&B songs of its time. The set showcases Baker’s thick voice, and a technique informed by equal parts of jazz languor and gospel passion. Songs like “Sweet Love,” “Caught up in the Rapture,” “You Bring Me Joy,” and “No One in the World” defined R&B radio in the mid-80s and inspired the sound of other singers like Regina Belle, Miki Howard, and Oleta Adams.

 Hip-Hop Soul and Neo Soul: R&B continually evolves into different forms. After a decade of quiet storm and new jack music a younger group of singers drew inspiration from classic soul of the 70s and fused this with elements of hip-ho p which led to hip-hop soul and the more retro neo-soul genre. Mary J. Blige’s debut What’s the 411?(1992) was a refreshing blend of urban funk, hip-hop and elements of ‘70s soul that made Blige the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. After five years of releasing very popular albums with gospel and R&B touches Mariah Carey integrated hip-hop elements on her hip-pop-soul masterpiece Daydream (1995) which spawned major singles like “Fantasy,” “Always Be My Baby” and “One Sweet Day” and showcased a funkier and more sensual side of the pop diva. 

Dionne Farris’s Wild Seed-Wild Flower, (1994) which spawned the blazing rock-soul single “I Know,” is one of the earliest examples of a kind of back to basics approach more focused on the beauty of individual voices and more personal lyrics. Farris has a yearning vocal style that works on the funky anthem “Find A Way,” a beautiful rendition of “Blackbird, the a capella ballad “Human,” and the rock song “Passion.” Me’shell N’degeocello, D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu also became leading voices of the style. Five years later singer, writer, and poet Jill Scott debuted with the brilliant Who is Jill Scott? featuring one of the most appealing, cohesive and distinctive bodies of songs including “Getting in the Way,” “A Long Walk,” “The Way,” and “It’s Love.” Former Tony! Toni! Tone! frontman Raphael Saadiq released his finest album with 2010’s Stone Rollin’ a dazzling mix of soul, surf music, rock, and funk that pushes neo-soul into new areas stylistically.

Singer-Songwriter pop: Being a singer-songwriter doesn’t mean churning out wan folk songs. The most memorable singer-songwriters create their own universe using a variety of tools. They may inspire others but are too singular to be duplicated.  Joni Mitchell’s experiments with jazz; Laura Nyro’s elliptical melodies and impressionist lyrics; Paul Simon’s explorations of reggae, gospel, South African pop and South American rhythms have all impressed my ears with their original fusions. 

        Roseanne Cash: Interiors (1990): After over a decade thriving in country music Cash broke from the             genre’s chains toward a rawer confessional approach that is searing in its portrait of her troubled                  marriage and liberating in its honesty and wordplay.

 Julia Fordham: Porcelain (1989); Falling Forward (1994): Uncommonly sensual, perceptive and textured singer-songwriter pop Fordham is an incredible synthesizer of styles. Influenced by Joni Mitchell, as well as Sarah Vaughan and Laura Nyro Porcelain was her breakthrough with elements of jazz and Brazilian pop. Falling Forward has a strong gospel influence on anthems like “Hope, Prayer, and Time” and “River,” as well as some incredibly sumptuous simmering ballads.

 Bobbie Gentry: Delta Sweetie (1968): Though “Ode to Billie Joe” made Gentry famous her sophomore album is her strongest work. On this layered mix of blues, country, and folk tunes Gentry presents an offbeat, and often dark portrait of Southern life through a dazzling array of characters and scenarios. 

 Joe Jackson: Night and Day (1982): After making his mark as a new wave angry young man with hits like Is She Really Going Out With Him? Jackson distinguished himself on this stirring blend of jazz, salsa rhythms, and sleek pop. “Steppin Out” and “Breaking Us in Two” are the two big hits from this unusually entertaining set.

 Rickie Lee Jones: Rickie Lee Jones (1979); Flying Cowboys (1991): 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. Jones struggled to build from this momentum, then in 1991 her melodic instincts and lyrical focus resulted in the brilliant Flying Cowboys a mix of offbeat rhythms, reggae and sparkling whimsical songs like “Satellites” that reiterate her compelling musical vision.

 Carole King: Tapestry (1971): King transitioned from a songwriter for hire to a popularartists capable of writing intimate yet relatable songs about her experiences, all documented on one of singer songwriter pop’s most consistent and enjoyable albums.

 Joni Mitchell: Court & Spark (1973): For me 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.” As accomplished and influential as Blue in its melancholic sparseness is I find myself listening to Court a lot more. The casual beauty of the arrangements and the endearing quality of her singing on album tracks like “Down to You” is consistently delightful.

Laura Nyro: The First Songs (1967); Eli and the 13th Confession (1968); New York Tendaberry (1969): The original “wild child” behind the piano, Laura Nyro’s first three albums feature some of the most original and unusual songs in the American popular music canon. Her lyrics are rife with vivid imagery shaped by vernacular speech and her free flowing diction, wrapped in serpentine melodies and odd harmonies. Nyro was inspired by R&B and soul, but she summons a whole spectrum of music traditions in her approach. Singers like Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Bush and Tori Amos are deeply influenced by her aesthetic.  

 John Prine: Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (double-disc): Hailed as the new Dylan when he debuted in 1970 Prine is a distinctive writer with strong folk and rock leanings whose lyrics to classics like “Angel from Montgomery,” “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” convey an incisive understanding of the scope of human emotions. His skewed perspective and winsome humor have made him one of the most respected and believed rock singer-songwriters.

 Carly Simon: Carly Simon: Anthology: Among her generation of singing composers Simon has the most varied career. She is best known for slick folk-inspired ‘70s hits like Anticipation and Your So Vain, but later triumphs like “You Belong to Me” and “Nobody Does it Better” revealed an increasingly impressive stylistic range. Her subsequent efforts including her movie themes “Coming Around Again” and “Let the River Run,” her efforts interpreting American Songbook fare, and her explorations of operetta and writing children’s books and a memoir speak to an admirable pursuit of expression.

 Paul Simon: Paul Simon Anthology (double-disc): A perfect view of the panoramic repertoire composed by one of our most accomplished composers-performers during his most influential period. In addition to Simon & Garfunkel highlights you get songs like Meand Julio Down at the Schoolyard, Still Crazy After All These Years, Slip Slidin’ Away, Graceland, You Can Call Me Al and tracks from Rhythm of the Saints.

 Allen Toussaint: Songbook (Deluxe Edition) (2013): Toussaint wrote some of rock and soul’s best known songs including “Mother in Law,” “It’s Raining” and “Yes We Can Can” among many others. Though he was primarily known as a writer he recorded many albums of original material. His most memorable is the brilliant Songbook, featuring highlights from his career, recorded live at New York’s Joe’s Pub with Toussaint singing solo with his piano. His voice has never been better, his piano playing is very creative, and his 15 minute “Southern Nights” is a brilliant, seamless fusion of music and storytelling.

 Big Pop: In the 1980s when I was growing up, and I suspect many of you as well, pop artists regularly released blockbuster albums where just about very cut could be a hit single.  These albums offered a grab bag of moods; the melodies were strong, the hooks grabbed you and everyone knew the lyrics. Even prior to the ‘80s big pop was present in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of my favorites:

        Donna Summer: Gold: Dance-pop reaches its peak here. The Queen of Disco defined the genre via         songs like “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff.” But she         translated her power and appeal on ‘80s hits like “On the Radio,” “The Wanderer,” “She Works Hard          for the Money,” “This Time I Know it’s for Real” as well as other hits featured on this excellent two-           disc career summary.

Faith (1987): Wham! was responsible for some of ‘80s pops goofiest and most melodramatic hits. Though it certainly took skill to churn out hit after hit no one expected such a mature and accomplished work from Wham! front man George Michael. The rockabilly swagger of “Faith,” the jazz aura of “Kissing a Fool,” the fierce danceability of “I Want your Sex” and “Monkey,” and the haunting ballads “One More Try” and “Father Figure” are undeniable pop.

Prince: The Hits: Listening to the late Purple One’s collected works reminds you of his panoramic view of the pop music’s possibilities. Inspired by James Brown, Little Richard, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Shuggie Otis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and others but never beholden to them Prince was limitless in his vision. He mastered spare funk (“Kiss”), buoyant pop (“Controversy,” “Delirious”), psychedelic rock (“Raspberry Beret”), epic rock (“Purple Rain”), romantic ballads (“Adore”), gospel style soul (“Nothing compares 2 U”) and challenged essentialist notions of black pop.

 Private Dancer (1984): After establishing herself as the Queen of rock in the Ike & Tina Revue, escaping her abusive marriage, and struggling re-establish herself as a solo artist Turner made rock’s biggest comeback on the brilliant Private Dancer. It takes real emotional nuance and musical skill to finesse a bittersweet song like What’s Love Got to Do With It” that teeters on the edge of cynicism and hope. She also left her stamp on new rock songs like “Better Be Good to Me,” masterfully played the role of an embittered high priced call girl on the title track, and reanimated soul classics like “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Let’s stay Together” with a contemporary vigor.

 She’s So Unusual (1984): Lauper burst through MTV and pop radio into the pop stratosphere with her funky style, spunky personality and delicious pop offerings. Her solo debut features some of the defining songs of the era including the anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the standard “Time after Time” (which was later recorded by Miles Davis among others), and left-field songs like “She Bop” and “Money Changes Everything.” 

The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection (boxed set): This beautiful four disc tribute to the master songwriter, arranger and producer is as much about the infinite melodic and harmonic possibilities of pop as it is about Bacharach. Chronicling his run of hits from the late 1950s-late 1990s it spotlights classic performances by an all-star roster including hischief muse Dionne Warwick, and classy performances Jackie Deshannon, Chuck Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Jerry Butler, Fifth Dimension, Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald, Elvis Costello among others.

 Thriller (1982): The biggest pop album ever completely defined the sonic possibilities and televisual reach of early to mid-1980s and elevated Michael Jackson from an incredibly gifted pop-soul singer to an international icon. Every song is a hit, but songs like “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Human Nature” have transcended the decade and become pop classics. Jackson offered something for everyone here and no one has ever topped his populist masterpiece.

Ultimate Hall & Oates: The most popular duo in rock history was a promising ‘70s pop-soul group via songs like Sara Smile and She’s Gone that became a thrilling hit factory from 1980-1985.  Influenced by doo-wop, Motown and the Philly music scene they have excelled in pop, rock, and soul. Their brilliant run of hits, including “Kiss is on my list,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t go for that,” “Say it isn’t so,” “One on One,” “Method of Modern Love,” “Out of Touch” ran in parallel to other iconic pop from Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince. Though they are perceived to have peaked in the mid- 1980s they chose to take a hiatus before scoring more hits in the late 80s, early 90s, and 2000s. They remain an active recording and performing group enduring longer than just about any other pop duo.

 Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rock favorites: The rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the mid-1950s was the culmination of industrial, technological, and social changes. While sometimes thought of as a revolution it may be more accurate to call it an almost accidental convergence of forces. Alas, American popular music and the culture has never been the same since. Below are artists within various rock subgenres that I enjoy. Think of this as less a formal history than a listener’s guide to some important works inside and outside of the canon:

 Rock ‘n’ Roll

 Chuck Berry: In terms of musicality and originality guitarist, composer, singer, icon and duck-walker Berry is arguably the king of rock ‘n’ roll. His songs captured the intricacies of teenage life and the burgeoning teen consumerism of the ‘50s with a stunning astuteness that still resonates. Berry’s “Maybellene,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” “Roll Over Beethoven” “Johnny B. Goode,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “No Particular Place to Go” are canonical rock recordings that display the unique synthesis of country, blues, jazz and R&Bthat is rock & roll. These are also anthems that inspired a wealth of followers ranging from heavies like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones—especially Keith Richards who openly acknowledges his depth to Berry—and an infinite number of cover bands and earnest would-be rock ‘n’ rollers striving to learn three guitar chords. Like most rock ‘n’ rollers Berry’s albums tend to be hodgepodges of singles making the abundance of compilations, boxed sets, etc. an ideal way to experience his sound. 2005’s The Definitive Collection is a perfect one-disc distillation of Berry’s best material. The 30 tracks collected (actually 29 if you discount the silly hit “My Ding-A-Ling”) are well annotated and captured in crisp digital sound. The lyrical efficiency, melodic diversity and rhythmic gravity of his songs are impressive in their range and consistent quality. There is also a solid career summary by Bud Scoppa and several iconic photos.

 Buddy Holly: Holly was one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll performers of his era penning classics like “It’s So Easy,” “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” among other classics. His quirky vocal style and perky, lean arrangements were a fresh sound comparable in achievement to Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. His ballad performances also have aged very well including “Everyday” and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Original Master Tapes is an excellent presentation of his most important songs. Though it has limited notes it is a perfect introduction to a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer.

Little Richard: The self-proclaimed “Architect of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is at least partially correct: Little Richard’s fierce vocal style, rhythmic boogie-woogie piano attack and flamboyant sexuality are as fundamental to mid-to-late ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll as Chuck Berry’s guitar licks, Buddy Holly’s hiccup, and Elvis’s swagger. After learning piano playing and singing from various mentors Richard Penniman transitioned into showbiz performing with various traveling bands and shows before remaking his image and embarking on a solo career.

After a few tentative commercial recordings his talent fully blossomed at New Orleans’s Specialty Records in the fall of 1955. In the span of two years he recorded some of the seminal sounds of rock including “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and “Keep a Knockin.’” Specialty’s 25 song collection The Georgia Peach is a perfect single-disc overview of his most vital recordings. In addition to his well-known falsetto laced vocal bursts and rumbling piano the set showcases overlooked his crooning skills on several ballads and impressive composing skills; about half the songs collected are Penniman copyrights.

Wanda Jackson: Guitarist, writer and singer Wanda Jackson is commonly understood as a female pioneer of the country, rock and R&B fusion that spawned rock ‘n’ roll or more simply as the “Queen of Rockabilly.” This sobriquet is tricky since Jackson was actually very strongly rooted in country and has achieved her most consistent commercial success in country--and after her conversion to Christianity—gospel rather than rock ‘n’ roll or pop. Her Capitol LPs and “45s are some of the most important rock ‘n’ roll recordings of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s before she transitioned into full-time country and gospel singing.  She gradually returned to secular recordings in the 90s and 00s and occasionally tours.

            Her 1958 Capitol debut (reissued on CD in 2002) is a mixture of traditional country with touches of rock ‘n’ roll. “I Wanna Waltz” and “Day Dreaming” are entertaining if routine country performances that could have just as easily been recorded by any young country singer of the era. They reveal the growing influence of singers like Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline on a new generation of female country singers. However on rock cuts like “Long Tall Sally” and “Money, Honey” she sings with a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll grit and fervor. On these cuts she grinds her voice and easily glides into falsetto whoops over rollicking piano rolls, guitar solos and jaunty rock rhythms. Though not an outright rock ‘n’ roll album it represents the transition performers were making from traditional genres to the rock hybrid. The reissue also features six bonus cuts recorded in 1957-58 that complement the tone of the LP cuts. 1959’s There’s a Party is more overtly rock flavored and spirited. Its covers of R&B fare like “Kansas City” and rock songs like Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Really Anymore” furthered her rock ‘n’ roll identity. It too features various bonus tracks that showcase her range as a writer, player and singer. Her best album of the period 1960’s Rockin’ With Wanda is one of the most thrilling rock albums of its era. After establishing herself as a commercial entity Jackson grew into her voice; the set is highlighted by Jackson-penned cuts like the anthemic opener “Rock Your Baby,” and the masochist flirtation “Mean Mean Man” as well as classic rock anthems like “Fujiyama Mama.” The set is a prototypical rock ‘n’ roll set with chugging electric guitars, subtle reverb, and charming affectations like vocal hiccups and percussive pauses. There are also some silly novelties like the pseudo-Calypso number “Dona’a Wan’a.” Among the six bonus tracks are a few standard rock ‘n’ roll ballads with piano triplets and yearning lyrics as well as good originals like the flirtatious “Savin’ My Love.”

            Jacksons’ prime rock-oriented material has been widely compiled including a Bear Family boxed set (Right or Wrong) and various single-disc collections from Capitol and Rhino. Capitol’s Vintage Collections is an excellent 20-song overview of her 1956-61 recordings. The set showcases her visceral brand of rock ‘n’ roll alongside fine renditions of country tunes and ballads. Much of her country and gospel material is out of print.

 1960s Rock

 The Beatles: In six years The Beatles grew from a buoyant teen pop band to blazing innovators whose musicality, whimsy, curiosity and sheer passion helped propel rock into the realm of commercial art. Their initial work (1964-65) employed and inverted familiar forms including rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and pre-rock pop establishing them as pop classicists. A cheeky, self-deprecating sense of humor, dynamic personalities and weird haircuts made them idols and natural film stars (i.e. A Hard Days). Dazzling stylistic range and an early penchant for daring harmonic and rhythmic choices validated their musicianship. Their commercial dominance and prolificness was unprecedented and understandably appealing. After years of enduring bland teen pop and increasingly formulaic girl groups, rock audiences rightfully viewed George, John, Paul and Ringo as a genuine revolution. Their ability to synthesize disparate strands of pop music and forge believable, attractive personae made them instant stars. But their deft attention to the possibilities of albums as artistic suites catapulted them, and rock, to new dimensions of craft and expressiveness. My favorite Beatles albums are Rubber Soul, Revolver, The White Album and Abbey Road.

·         Rubber Soul’s harmonic and melodic richness, textural sumptuousness and thematic eclecticism were among the high watermarks of rock album-making at the time. Classics like “Norwegian Wood,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Michelle,” and “In My Life” are among the best known anchors for a whole set of intriguing, beguiling songs. These songs’ transcendence of rock to the throats of jazz, country, R&B and traditional vocal pop bespeaks the glorious well Lennon and McCartney breached.

·         Revolver has a brighter and more whimsical tone than Rubber Soul but maintained its richness and cohesion. From the character sketch “Eleanor Rigby” to the infectious “Got to Get You into My Life” and “Good Day Sunshine,” to the delectable balladry of “Here, There and Everywhere” a casual brilliance graced their work to such a degree that it would seem unfathomable that they could go further but they did…sort of. The innovations that culminated in Rubber Soul and Revolver reflected growth in the band’s songwriting, arranging and George Martin’s production approach. It was also paralleled by the deepening of their status as icons; the pandemonium incited by fandom led them to retire from live performing which opened the door for even more rigorous studio experimentation and ultimately isolation.

·         The Beatles (aka The White Album) a sprawling double-disc carnival of everything from hard rock (“Back in the U.S.S.R,” “Helter Skelter,” “Revolution 1”), plaintive balladry (“Blackbird”), simmering pop (“Happiness is a Warm Gun”), and contemporary (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) and ersatz (“Honey Pie”) whimsical pop. Recorded amidst group acrimony it is a bit of a mess; some of the songs are slight (“Savoy Truffle”) and a few melodies get lost in the haze but it is a continually interesting and an ultimately vital listen.

·         The focus, economy and brilliance the band exhibited in its initial foray into art rock on Rubber Soul returned in full bloom on Abbey Road, their final recording. One can only listen rather than argue with the openness of “Here Comes the Sun,” “Something”’s simple beauty, the folk aura of “Carry That Weight,” and the unrelenting drive of “Come Together.”  Their official swan song Let It Be yielded several classics in the gospel-ish title track, the majestic “Across the Universe” and “The Long and Winding Road” but is undone by some questionable production choices and inconsistency.  

Credence Clearwater Revival: If you didn’t know any better you might mistake the San Francisco based band CCR, led by singer/writer John Fogerty, for a Southern band. Their thick country-ish accents, earthy themes, and swamp blues feel seem sound straight out of the bayou. Regardless their best material is some of the most creative blues-rock of the 60s and early 70s. Chronicle is a classic compilation of their best ranging from playful anthems like “Down on the Corner,” and “Proud Mary,” to more pointed political commentary such as “Fortunate Son” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” This is a prime collection of some of the most vital and original music of the decade, as essential as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in breadth and influence.  In the early ‘70s Fogerty, the group’s creative center, left the band which gradually dissolved. Fogerty has gone on to have a successful, if sporadic, solo career.

Classic Rock/Meat and Potatoes Rock

Fleetwood Mac began as a late 60s British blues rock band headed by guitarist Peter Green but by the 1970s it transformed into a half British-half American band that appealed to AOR and pop listeners thanks to skillful, catchy songs, a thunderous rhythm section and the charming vocals of its lead singers. In the mid-70s British holdovers—bassist John McVie, pianist/singer Christine McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood--added guitarist Lindsay Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks to the mix which completely transformed their sound and image. Buckingham was an extraordinarily dexterous guitarist and a skilled arranger/ producer. Nicks had a sexy husk and a mysterious gypsy spirit that inflected her songs.

From 1975-88 this lineup released the popular near-classic Fleetwood Mac, 1977’s classic Rumours, and three solid studio albums in the 80s including Tusk, Mirage and Tango in the Night. Greatest Hits is an excellent single disc collection of the group’s biggest hits and most notable songs of the popular ‘75-88 line up, including “Rhiannon,” “Over My Head,” “Dreams,” “You Make Loving Fun,” “Tusk,” “Hold Me,” “Everywhere,” and “Little Lies,” which was some of the most well-crafted, distinctive and enjoyable music of its era. The double-disc The Very Best of Fleetwood Mac (WEA/Reprise, 2002) has hits plus live cuts and important album tracks. Both are immensely satisfying overviews.

 Bruce Springsteen: New Jersey bard Springsteen was a cult artist in the 70s, fawned over by critics but lacking major radio hits or a broad audience. Anthems like “Born to Run” crossed him over somewhat but it wasn’t until he and the E Street Bandbegan to develop a national reputation for epic concerts and he began to reveal original social and political observations about post-60s American life that he gained a wide audience. Starting with 1980’s The River, Springsteen began a streak of high charting, best-selling albums that vacillated from rock to sparer, folk-flavored songs.

A vivid writer and masterful synthesizer of styles Springsteen became a bonafide star with 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. a mix of rockers and ballads covering everything from post-Vietnam disillusionment, (the title track) to nostalgia (“Glory Days”).Underlying the often raucous songs was a sense of dismay, and anxiety. His studio follow-up Tunnel of Love, which preceded his divorce from actress Julianne Philips, is one of the most probing and incendiary examinations of romantic fantasies and thwarted realities in rock. Ranging from the spare rockabilly of “I Ain’t Got You” to the smooth surfaces of the title track and “Brilliant Disguise” it balances commercial songcraft with soulful revelation in an uncommonly focused and engaging manner.

Lucinda Williams is a guitar based writer who struggled for years until rock, country and folk singers began to cover her material, most famously Mary Chapin-Carpenter’s 1992 cover of “Passionate Kisses.” Influenced by her poet father Miller Williams, country blues singers like Memphis Minnie and rock writers such as Bob Dylan she excels at folk/country-inflected rock songs with eloquent, emotionally immediate lyrics depicting a stylized working-class lens on romance and ambition. Williams earliest recordings, recorded in 1979 and 1980 are largely considered derivative and unfocused however by the late 80s her style began to gel.   1988’s Lucinda Williams, featuring “Passionate Kisses,” “Crescent City,” and “I Changed the Locks,” (all recorded by other singers) is an excellent collection of narrative songs embodying a fine blend of rock, folk, country and blues textures. Several live and bonus cuts are included including her cover of Memphis Minnie’s “Something in Rambling.”

 Punk and New Wave                                                                                                                     The Cars were the craftiest and most enduring of the new wave groups to emerge in the late 70s and reach success in the 1980s. Their songs which drew from Motown, rock ‘n’ roll, girl groups, power pop and even punk were marvelously catchy and compact songs usually about romantic elation or broken hearts. They released some of the most indelible songs of the 80s including “Magic,” “You Might Think” and “Drive.”  Complete Greatest Hits is an excellent one-disc set with everything you need from the group, essential.

 Nick Lowe: British singer-writer Lowe is the best argument for the lasting value of “power pop,” “new wave” and the other myriad of titles for post-punk influenced rock. Lowe is a masterful melodist, an intricate lyricist with a sharp sense of humor and lucid sense of human psychology, and a wide stylistic palette.

·         Jesus of Cool (A CD reissue of 1979’s Pure Pop for Now People restored with its original title and LP artwork) is a punk masterpiece—funny, vulgar, sharp, and insightful. Among its highlights are the swaggering cynicism of the thundering anthem “Music for Money,” and the freewheeling sass of “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass.” Punk and new wave have been feeding off of this album’s riffs and attitude for decades, a real classic of its kind.

·         Basher: Best of Nick Lowe features 25 mostly sterling tracks culled from his albums and singles output for Stiff Records and CBS spanning 1976-89. The only major hit was the brilliant “Cruel to Be Kind” but there is joy to be found everywhere ranging from the poignant rocker “Little Hitler” to the hilarious “Time Wounds All Heels.” Alongside the clever themes and memorable melodies are Lowe’s seamless synthesis of country, rock, and lite reggae; like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Lowe is a skilled craftsman who draws from a variety of genres to constitute his musical universe.

Donna Summer: 1979’s Bad Girls hinted at the possibilities of disco and rock on “Hot Stuff” but 1980’s The Wanderer delved into rock more fully than any of her previous albums. Summer got deeply personal with The Wanderer. Disillusioned with stardom yet optimistic about her personal survival, energetic and eclectic but mature and focused the album was a seminal fusion of pop, rock and new wave influences that allowed Summer to separate herself from disco.  The title track hit #3, and “Who Do you Think You’re Foolin’” and the rock ballad “Cold Love” were only moderate hits but while Summer’s disco audience didn’t warm up to the set it remains an excellent set of songs that holds up.

Eclectic Rock

 Marti Jones gained notoriety in the mid-1980s as a progressive interpreter of quality contemporary songs from the pens of rock and folk songwriters like John Hiatt. She and her longtime producer (and eventual husband) Don Dixon built her career on a series of tasteful albums mixing a handful of originals with well-chosen covers. In the early ‘90s she and Dixon focused more on composing. She switched to independent labels in the mid-1990s. Always more of a critical favorite than a popular seller Jones is an underrated talent.

·         1989’s Used Guitars is her strongest album and an excellent introduction to her buoyant, emotionally penetrating style. Like Linda Ronstadt’s triumphant Heart Like a Wheel the album Used Guitars is a sublime meshing of singer, material and arrangements. Jones is influenced by pop, folk, R&B, country and even aspects of punk and synthesizes them masterfully. Her interpretations are seamless expressions of the heart. “Keep Me in the Dark” and “Wind in the Trees” are full of palpable torch songs with a melancholy that creeps gently. “If I Could Love Somebody” is a gentle folk-country lament. “The Real One” soars with choral richness. She differs from Ronstadt primarily in being a songwriter. Her original tunes “Tourist Town” and “Twisted Vines” are melodic, original songs with a fresh point of view. This combination of memorable melodies, vibrant arrangements—courtesy of producer Don Dixon—and expert musicianship is a musician at her peak.

·         Any Kind of Lie features 10 originals and 2 interpretations but they add up to a solid whole. The title track is beautiful, melodic and smart. “Second Sight” showcases her vocal strength quite well. “Cliché” is delicate and understated and “Second Choice” is a moody shuffle with an intimate vocal that illuminates the song’s vivid imagery.  Jones can be an effective writer but her primary strength is interpretation. The best originals stand up to some of her favored writers. Several of the songs required repeated listens to sink in but this is a step forward creatively for Jones and Dixon.

·         1996’s Live at Spirit Square is a lively concert featuring highlights from her all of her albums from mid-80s through 1992. She and her band capture the essence of the material while infusing it with the energy, humor and presence only possible in a live setting. Listeners experience interpretations, originals and Jones’s charming stage persona. 

Modern Rock

Terence Trent D’Arby: D' Arby is a rock-soul trailblazer whose bold and pretentious pronouncements at the outset of his career in the late 80s haunted him for years. This is too bad because he is a skilled, versatile, accomplished, and impassioned musical talent. His star quickly faded but his music is fresh and impressive. 1987’s Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D'Arby was one of the most inspired and fiercely original soul albums of the 1980s. D’ Arby's stylistic range and musical prowess present him as heir apparent to great masters of soul and funk like Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke. 1989’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh was less commercially focused than his debut but is a wide open, masterpiece charming in its ambition. He continues to demonstrate a mastery of and fresh approach to classic funk and soul singing traditions highlighted by the old fashioned soul cry on “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down.” By the 1990s D’ Arby’s commercial profile faded but he was still as driven as ever.

·         1993’s Symphony or Damn is one of the decade's finest rock albums. It is a sprawling ambitious potpourri of virtually every major contemporary musical style. Sweeping, inspired and relentlessly engaging it is his masterpiece.

·         2003’s Wild Card! recorded under D’Arby’s new moniker  Sananda Maitreya, is a wildly eclectic mix of soul, funk and rock that ushers D’Arby’s style into the present demonstrating his influence on a slew of musicians but possessing a daunting ease and command.

Jennifer Trynin: Even though conventional adult contemporary, dance pop, and country-pop were the dominant genres female singers excelled in during the 1990s one of the era’s enduring clichés was the supposedly epochal rise of the “angry woman” female rock archetype. This moniker includes acts as disparate as Riot Grrrl bands, Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Meredith Brooks and the most commercial extant Alanis Morrisette. Alas the dust has settled on that era and much of this music is nakedly transparent or simply dated. Post-punk guitarist/songwriter Trynin was a near-star until she was eclipsed by more commercial acts. Though it would have been a nice personal windfall for her to have achieved commercial success her relative obscurity makes it easier to appreciate her two albums, Cockamamie and Gun Shy, Trigger Happy with fresh ears. Drawing strands from blues, rock, punk and power pop she is a genuine find with a penchant for rocking, subtle melodies, and a sardonic wit as blush-worthy as Aimee Mann’s.

·         Her independently produced debut 1994’s Cockamamie (later reissued by Warner Bros.) sparked a perfectly understandable bidding war. Trynin specializes in angst-ridden lyrics of love gone awry but with a credibly adult tone quite distinct from the sophomoric adolescent rants of Morissette and her spawn as well as the cheeky sexuality of Phair. She sings with the snarl and guts of someone genuinely pissed. Among its highlights are the rapid fire (1:42 minutes long) you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing “All This Could Be Yours.” As sharp and stinging as a bullet, its damn funny, topped only by the next song “Too Bad You’re Such A Loser” a quintessential modern rock song with a chant-like hook, bits of vocal distortion and slow grind guitars. Lest this seem too glib the set ends with a brief interlude called “I Know How it Feels to Be Down” that suggests she’s still reeling. 

·         The slightly sleeker Gun Shy, actually recorded for Warner Bros. is ostensibly more polished but never glosses over Trynin’s persona. Like her debut it’s a musically eclectic walk through romantic angst but is a bit moodier, more atmospheric and more tempered in tone. Whereas Cockamamie specialized in clipped power-pop the songs here are a bit more measured including the mid-tempo chug of “Washington Hotel” and the downbeat “Under the Knife” and the neo-country flavored, closer “Rang You & Ran”. It’s most searing cut “I Resign” notable for its hook “I-I-I-I Resign…OK,” maintains her debuts bite but it enters the skin more subtly and seductively. Neither album was a hit and Trynin retreated from commercial recording though she eventually wrote a book about her experiences in the biz, and performs in the band The Loveless. 

Country: What originated as a mix of folk tunes adapted from Anglo cultures and Afro-American spirituals grew into a highly varied and adaptable musical genre. Bluegrass and western swing have evolved into honky-tonk, countrypolitan, country-soul, country-rock and a variety of styles that accommodate musicians with a diverse range of talents and interests in the genre’s core of storytelling. Some of my favorite artists include the following:

Hank Williams Sr: Though his life was prematurely ended by alcoholism his songwriting and performing legacy endures. As the premier honky tonker and interpreter of classics like “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Hey Good Lookin,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With you,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Williams is the most influential male figure in country music.  His music has been packaged and repackaged incessantly. I recommend 20 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits (Mercury Nashville, 1997) as a great introduction to Williams. He recorded 66 songs during his 30 year life so this is a straightforward way to hear his core songs. There are multiple boxed sets and double disc sets that elaborate on his legacy.

Patsy Cline is arguably the most iconic and influential female country singer of the 20th century. Cline initially aspired to be a nitty-gritty country singer but this approach never quite worked. Her earliest recordings for Four Star Records are collected on the entertaining but tentative The Essential First Recordings highlighted by her hit version of “Walkin’ After Midnight.” That classic slice of understated yearning is surrounded by fine performances like “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” and “Lovesick Blues” plus 50s hokum like “Come on In” alongside some light spiritual fare. Despite uneven material the classic Bradley-Cline style is here in its earliest phase. Short of a boxed set the double-disc Ultimate Collection is the best comprehensive overview of her career at Decca. It mixes signature standards-“I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “She’s Got You,” with sleeper tracks and covers of pop standards like “True Love” delivered with her refined phrasing in Bradley’s elegant settings.

George Jones is one of the premier singers of country music and one of modern popular music’s most accomplished and affecting balladeers. The Texas-raised Jones was deeply influenced by Hank Williams Sr. and honky-tonk music, and extends the spirit of honky tonk in his recordings. However after initially establishing himself amidst the rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly era Jones distinguished himself as perhaps the most emotionally penetrating balladeer country music has known.

·         Rhino Records’ 1991 Best of George Jones (1955-1967) collects the cream of his earliest recordings, spanning 1955-67. Before George Jones became country music’s reigning hard-living King of Pain he was a honky tonker with a penchant for uptempo country numbers and novelties like “White Lightning” and “I’m a People.” However as the lush, dramatic “She Thinks I Still Care” attests at heart he was a brooding balladeer whose emotionally astute readings made him country’s master interpreter non-pareil. Shockingly the countrypolitan production values did not detract from Jones’s sober readings. The collection also features interesting numbers like his duet with Gene Pitney. 

·         Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits (Epic), a distillation of his prime 1972-82 Epic recordings, is emotionally haunted and nearly morose. The thing is Jones sings with such subtlety—even when Billy Sherrill’s production choices go overboard—that the emotional force washes over the listener. Jones is a master of mood and timing, and knows exactly how to draw out the emotional core of classic ballads like “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Jones gives these seemingly plaintive themes a stunning emotional grandeur and sings them with the disarming sincerity of one with a profound understanding of heartbreak and loss. That many of these were recorded during a period of erratic ‘70s behavior may infuse his performances with realism, but Jones is not a self-pitying warbler; he’s a genuine heart-on-sleeve romantic. Jones continued recording for Epic throughout the ‘80s but his Anniversary features his most essential material.

·         In 1990 Jones signed with MCA and entered the urban cowboy/hat acts ring. The Collection is a fine 12-song overview spanning his 1990-98 recordings. The production is slicker and the songs are uneven but Jones is in good form throughout. As an elder statesman of country songs the defensive “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair,” recorded with 10 other country superstars and the tongue-in-cheek “High Tech Redneck” are metacommentaries on the commercialism of country which has discarded its veterans in favor of courting the pop audience. Less self-conscious is his great version of “Patches” with B. B. King and two duets with Tammy Wynette. The remaining songs are predictable ballads and neo-honky tonk songs sung with effortless precision.

·         1999’s Cold Hard Truth (Asylum) which won Jones a Grammy for the lamentation “Choices,” is considered one of his major recording triumphs. Whereas his MCA recordings were clearly an effort to get him on the radio and translate his style into modern settings Truth is a career defining album. “Choices” is one of the most forthright and affecting reflections on a life full of regrets in popular music. It is complemented by similarly sober ballads like the title track. The set is balanced out by great honky tonk numbers like “Ain’t Love a lot Like That” and “You Never Know Just How Good You’ve Got It” whose jaunty rhythms provide relief but never disguise the set’s reflective tone.

Ray Charles was associated with R&B and soul music but in 1960 he released the first volume of Modern Sounds in Country & Western, a radical interpretative feat that treated songs from honky tonk, folk-rock and countrypolitan like vehicles open to interpretation in many different styles. The result showcases the adaptability and relevance of country music to many interpretive approaches, and audiences.

Willie Nelson: Songwriter, singer, actor, activist and icon Nelson is one of the few modern country singers to transcend genre and achieve relevance as a musician and cultural figure. Nelson began his career as a more successful songwriter than performer. He authored such seminal country compositions as “Crazy” (immortalized by Patsy Cline), “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Nite Life,” and “Hello Walls” that continue to be covered across genre. In the 1970s Nelson redefined himself as a country “outlaw” who eschewed Nashville slickness and conservatism for a more laidback rock-influenced sound and aura that redefined his career. He recorded two classic “concept” albums for Atlantic before reaching his commercial breakthrough at Columbia Records on 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. There he emerged as one of the finest interpreters of Kris Kristofferson’s songs and translated pop standards into a country idiom. Nelson had a fruitful career at Columbia through 1993 after which he regularly released one-two albums per year for Island Records and Lost Highway.

·         Rhino’s Nite Life, compiling 1959-71 recordings is a perfect introduction. In addition to the original versions of “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips away” it explores Nelson’s impressive eclecticism. He is heard in honky tonk, rockabilly, western swing, countrypolitan and pop settings that highlight the root of his endurance: a deep musicality fueled by a love and grasp of diverse American music.

·         The next step in Nelson-ography is Atlantic/Rhino’s three-disc The Complete Atlantic Sessions which features 1973’s Shotgun Willie (with 12 bonus tracks), 1974’s Phases and Stages (with 10 bonus tracks), and 1974’s Live at the Texas Opry House (with 5 unreleased tracks). Both LPs are “concept albums” with impressive song craft, solid production, and the confident outlaw persona Nelson perfected. Shotgun’s highlights include “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” “You Look Like the Devil” and a superb version of “A Song for You.” The honky tonker “Bloody Mary Morning” is Phases’s most compelling number; amidst the short narrative songs it is a fully formed song that works outside the concept.

·         Nelson’s Columbia albums include albums, concert sets, collaborations and soundtracks. Red Headed Stranger and Stardust are essential introductions to his Columbia phase. Red is a concept album, with storyboard, about a rebel cowboy who kills his cheating woman and her paramour. More ambitious than exciting it features numerous fragments between the album’s musical meat. However this album crossed Nelson over to broad audiences and features the classic “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The reissue includes his version of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It.” Nelson’s gift as an interpreter may exceed his singer-songwriter identity. Stardust is a sublime collection of interpretations that precedes the 80s rock torch boom inspired by Linda Ronstadt. Featuring classics like the sublimely interpreted title track, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and the country radio hit “Georgia on my Mind” it is lean and elegant and with imaginative acoustic arrangements and plaintive, subtle singing.

·         In addition to country and standards, Nelson is an expert interpreter of gospel music. Willie Nelson’s rebellious spirit and roots foundation makes the title of his 1976 gospel album The Troublemaker apt as he and his band put a fresh spin on several classic spirituals including “In the Garden” and “Amazing Grace”. Nelson reorients the material from hymnals to contemporary material with country and rock-flavored arrangements that feel fresh and inspired. The CD reissue also features several live cuts recorded before an adoring audience.

·         The remaining highlights of his Columbia recordings are best heard on the 1995 boxed set Revolutions of Time. Disc One, “Pilgrimage” features highlights from Red and Stardust, laid back live performances, and well-known crossover anthems like “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind.” Disc Two, “Sojourns” collects his myriad duets with Hank Snow, Leon Russell, Ray Price, the Outlaws, and various other collaborators. The set is of wildly varying quality as he is well matched with Snow and Price but on commercial autopilot on his schlocky Julio Iglesias duet “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” The Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard duets fall somewhere between entertainment and slackness.  “Exodus,” the final disc is a retread that traces Nelson’s mellowing into a reliable craftsman; his songwriting is more routine and the production is increasingly slick, especially the keyboards.

·         “Still is still Moving to Me” that ends the boxed set is a thundering anthem with a meaty rhythm that represented the height of his most well-regarded recording of the early 1990s, 1993’s Across the Borderline. On his final Columbia set he and Don Was showcased Nelson’s formidable composing and interpretive skills; he and Sinead O’Connor soar together on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” he gives compelling performances of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and “Graceland” and handles Lyle Lovett with aplomb. “Valentine” is mushy and his duets with Bonnie Raitt and Dylan are routine but the set reiterated Nelson’s deserved legendary stature.

 Dolly Parton is one of country’s most prolific and enduring singer-songwriters. She began as a solo singer in 1967 (her first single was Dumb Blonde) and gained fame on the Porter Waggoner show. As a writer she is famous for crafting memorable melodies and using colorful imagery on songs like Coat of Many Colors, to Daddy, and My Tennessee Mountain Home that have gained her admirers across genre including Emmylou Harris, Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, Whitney Houston, and Eva Cassidy who all recorded Parton songs.  Essential Dolly Parton is an excellent survey of her career from her early days to her hit-making period to her more recent bluegrass oriented phase.

Emmylou Harris: With her sweet soprano and wide-ranging tastes, Harris is one of the most innovative performers not only in country music but popular music in general. Harris began her career as a folk artist, releasing 1970’s Gliding Bird LP which made little impact. After being heard by the Flying Burrito Brothers—who were in the midst of pioneering what would become “country rock”—she was recruited to sing harmony. Soon after Gram Parsons mentored her and enlisted her to harmonize with him on his groundbreaking LPs G.P. and Grievous Angel. After he died of an overdose she forged ahead as a solo artist. When she debuted on Warner Bros. in 1975 she brilliantly synthesized her taste for rock, R&B and traditional country. However during the 80s and 90s she added a stronger folk element to her records eschewing the slickness of Nashville and pursuing a more personal, distinctive style. By the mid-to-late 90s recordings like 1995’s Lanois-produced Wrecking Ball and 1999’s Linda Ronstadt collaboration Western Wall revealed her to be one of the most dynamic and unpredictable voices in contemporary folk music. She continues to record and tour well into the 21st century, where her talents as a songwriter are catching up with her interpretive skill.

·         The two-disc Anthology: The Warner Reprise Years is an excellent overview of Harris’s career supplementing numerous previous hit collections with additional album tracks and rarities. The best thing short of a boxed set for this gifted, adventurous artist it reveals why she was such a big sensation. Harris has the musicality and range to provide interpretive insight and emotional authenticity to the music of the Louvin Brothers, mentor Gram Parsons, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, etc. with astonishing ease. Her own compositions also reveal a budding songwriter who fully blossomed in the 1990s.

·         One of her last straight country records is 1992’s At the Ryman, recorded with the Nash Ramblers is a beautiful, spirited live collection of acoustic interpretations across a variety of genres at a country performance landmark. She and the Ramblers have excellent chemistry and she is a commanding, endearing front lady. 

·         1993’s Cowgirl’s Prayer is a stark set of songs centered on yearning, longing and spiritual restlessness. Harris has never explored these themes with such sparseness and ache. Beautifully haunting and inspired it set the groundwork for the bold Wrecking Ball.

·         On 1995’s Wrecking Ball Harris covers Neil Young, The McGarrigle Sisters, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, etc. bathed in a gothic, deeply atmospheric production style that presents her voice in a grittily crystalline, weathered style.

K.T. Oslin: In an industry filled with imitators and also-rans Oslin distinguished herself from other 80s country female singers thanks to her mature sensibility and gifted songwriting talents. “80s Ladies,” “New Way Home,” “Feeding a Hungry Heart” are grown-up songs sung by an original talent. Oslin walked the line between pop and country, working with pop producers like Glen Ballard. However in this instance the pop fusion was welcome because it restored narrative depth to modern country and indicated that vocal excellence and modern production were just as relevant in country as they were in pop. Oslin won three Grammies and scored several radio hits in the late 1980s for recordings from ‘80s Ladies and This Woman. Aside from a few obvious keyboard and synthesizer textures the late ‘80s/early‘90s her RCA albums have aged well and still sound relevant.

·         80’s Ladies is a promising glimpse of the artist Oslin quickly became. The keyboard tapestries and peppy drum beats reveal the album’s 80s vintage, and it lacks a clear focus but it’s enjoyable. It begins with a good cover (“Wall of Tears”) and an even better original (“I’ll Always Come Back”) that teeter between familiar heartache and sentimentality themes. Suddenly Oslin’s persona shifts toward more personal career anthems.  These include a woman who embraces her sexual options (“Younger Men”), a sly confrontation to a lover about her enduring sex appeal (“Do Ya”) and the bittersweet title track, one of the decade’s more incisive portraits of female baby boomers. These core tracks are well complemented by solid torch songs and one fun number (“Dr. Dr”).

·         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. The songs frequently center on women’s pursuit of relationships that are emotionally (“Money,” “Hold Me”) and sexually (“Round the Clock Lovin’”) satisfying.  Rather than being reactionary or polemical she knows how to construct a believable world of characters in engaging situations including the heartbroken woman seeking respite in a local bar (“Where is a Woman to Go”); women observing changes in social station (“She Don’t Talk Like Us No More”); and a winking sexual invitation for a man to check out her new 4WD truck (“Hey Bobby”). She’s also not afraid to be delightfully snarky whether she’s capturing feelings of regret on “Jealous” or lamenting a bitter breakup on the rockabilly-style “Truly Blue.”

·         1990’s Love in a Small Town is a quirky portrait of love told in loosely connected vignettes of diverse characters. Some of Oslin’s performances, notably the hit “Come Next Monday” and “New Way Home” are so melodic and well-crafted they work well in any context. Slightly quirkier but equally appealing are the charming character sketches on loneliness “Mary and Willi” and lust “Cornell Crawford.”  Elsewhere Oslin showcases her interpretive gifts on a haunting “Love is Strange” and an endearing country-swing version of “You Call Everybody Darling.”  A few of the songs have a late 80s production gloss and broad themes, but this is in many ways a definitive portrait of Oslin’s unique gifts.

·         The excellent 1993 collection Songs from an Aging Sex Bomb spotlights her great sense of humor and her intelligent assessment of love and life. It is the perfect introduction to her eclectic style. All of her best songs are included and two new numbers. It easily places Oslin alongside Rosanne Cash and k. d. lang as one of the most important new voices in 80s country music.

·         After a three year hiatus and a heart attack Oslin came back as something of a closet rocker on My Roots Are Showing. She’s always been an excellent interpreter and the set’s mix of folk, country and obscure pop tunes showcase her gifts amply. The beefy arrangements add perfectly muscular touches to tunes like “Down in the Valley” and “Silver Tongued and Goldplated Lies.” She and her band have a gas on “I’ll See You in Cuba” and she approaches “Pathway of Teardrops” and “Miss the Mississippi and You” with a tenderness evocative of an earlier more contemplative era. Contemporary but not trendy and traditional but never nostalgic this is another achievement in her artistic crown.

·         In 2000 Oslin returned with the eclectic set Live Close By, Visit Often which showed her to still be a vital presence. “Neva Sawyer” is a great character song, a standards medley showcases her versatility and the dance mix of “Come On-A-My House” is an odd but satisfying treat.  Oslin essentially retired from recording and performing after releasing the album. Fortunately her music is readily available.

Dixie Chicks became the most popular girl group ever in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to expertly crafted albums of country that honored the tradition while integrating modern perspectives. After speaking out against the Iraq War the group was shunned by the country establishment In 2006 they returned in a big way with the defiant rock-flavored Taking the Long Way where they willfully abandoned the expectations of country music and released their inner philosophers and rockers via collaborating with producer Rick Rubin and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, among others. The result is an impressive and often stunning meditation on the plight of renegades and outsiders who eschew communal conventions and take risks.

 The opening track, “The Long Way Around”— a woman who defies her childhood peers by moving away from her town and never looking back—instantly sets the tone. By declaring “No I/I could never follow/I hit the highway” the Chicks are prepared to give listeners a bold and refreshingly honest look at everything the nation defines as common sense by looking beneath the surface of Southern charm and supposed cultural unity in favor of more sobering truths. That they do it with humor, musicality and unflinching insight is important; this is as musically enjoyable as it is lyrically appealing and is balanced with smart romantic fare that softens their message without blunting the force of their urgent material. The album’s centerpiece is the guitar driven “Not Ready to Make Nice” (co-written with Wilson) which pop radio gladly played. The three Grammy Awards the song garnered as a composition, recording and country group vocal was a savvy recognition of a classic anthem and a show of political solidarity. In a moment of political confusion and progressive paralysis the album feels like a manifestation of the challenges artists across various media have experienced in the “War on Terrorism” era.  “Lubbock or Leave It”—with references to Bible Belt culture and anti-heroes, and the fiercely optimistic “I Hope”—a heartfelt wish for children to not be misled by the adults of today—are equally moving anthems that explode the boundaries of country, folk and rock.







“Contagious in his enthusiasms”: A personal list of essential music (Part 1)

One of my weekly highlights is reading Frank Bruni’s columns in the New York Times. Perceptive, compassionate, and good-humored he is a remarkable writer with a great ear for language and a sensible lens on social issues, especially education, religion, and politics. Recently I completed his 2009 memoir Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite, a memoir I purchased at Pomfret Street Books, a fabulous used bookstore in the south west quadrant of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 

Bruni's memoir inspired some musical memories. (Copyright © Penguin Books, 2010)

Bruni's memoir inspired some musical memories. (Copyright © Penguin Books, 2010)

 As someone who loves food and food memoirs, à la Ruth Reichl, I was really taken by Bruni’s ruminations on his lifelong struggle with food. Growing up in an Italian-American family where an abundance of lovingly prepared food was a sign of love, and hosting large family gatherings was a prestigious annual tradition fostered a love for food that haunted Bruni’s self-image and esteem. Toward the book’s end Bruni recalls how in his early 40s his family began to see him differently once he took control of his life including balancing diet and exercise more discreetly. In an especially lovely passage he describes his brother Harry’s impressive growth into an erudite, culturally engaged, sartorially refined person “contagious in his enthusiasms” (335).

 I love this phrase; it stirred me to think about the ways we translate personal passions into something useful for other people. Music is just one of my many “enthusiasms,” but it figures quite heavily into my everyday life as a source of entertainment and as a structure of meaning. Despite several kind requests I have resisted writing about Prince’s life and death, and Beyonce’s Lemonade album recently because a lot has already been written, and I have other things on my mind. For many people summer is a more optimal time to explore and bore deeper into our passions. There’s something about a gleaming sun and warm breeze that stimulates us more: We read, we listen, we play, we experiment, we discover. This led me to think about sharing personal thoughts on music I deem “essential,” particularly to understanding popular music of our time as well as aspects of our natural culture and character. Bruni’s memoir led me to trace some steps in my musical (as opposed to culinary) past to think through music that helped me to better understand certain eras and genres. I combed through my personal collection and came up with some cool finds. Happy summer listening!........

 Though this is a fairly large list and listening to these recordings will provides a great understanding and feel for the style of music these are personal favorites. Notably, these are albums I listen to constantly that have personal resonance; it’s not meant to be a comprehensive list of every great artist in a particular period or genre.


Vocal jazz is the genre I listen to most commonly. Though people tend to associate jazz with pop music’s glorious past jazz is alive in the 21st century. Folks who have perceived jazz as dated or intimidating in the past should check out some of the recordings offered by contemporary jazz singers below like Rene Marie, Gregory Porter and Tierney Sutton. Many singers are singing original material using the language of jazz, while others are reinventing the jazz repertoire by approaching classic songs with a fresh lens and/or integrating more contemporary songs. Jazz remains fun, inspiring and relevant music. Some of my favorite vocal jazz albums from the last 25 years or so:

 1989: Short Stories (Janis Siegel): Siegel takes a break from Manhattan Transfer and creates a solo masterpiece with the elegant pianist Fred Hersch. The result is an enthralling program of classic ballad performances including songs by Judy Collins, Julia Fordham, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.

1993: Blame it on My Youth (Holly Cole): 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.

1993: From Bessie to Brazil (Susannah McCorkle): Cabaret-jazz singer McCorkle surveys some of pop music’s most enduring songs from Bessie Smith, Paul Simon, and Johnny Mercer; includes the definitive English language version of“Waters of March.”

1994: Café Blue (Patricia Barber): Pianist-composer Barber found her stride here mixing her moody compositions with everything from a haunted take on Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” to a Virginia Woolf poem.

1994: The Lady Wants to Know (Laura Fygi): A sumptuous suite of classic and neo-classic tunes rendered as bossa novas by the enchanting vocals of Dutch jazz singer Fygi and luscious orchestral arrangements.

1995: Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver (Dee Dee Bridgewater): The vocal album of Horace Silver’s signature bop tunes is a funky, bluesy, swinging affair with tender ballads and sizzling swingers by vocal jazz’s top vocal improviser.

2003: A Little Moonlight (Dianne Reeves): A lovely and buoyant 21st century jazz approach to popular standards highlighted by “Loads of Love,” “I’m All Smiles” and “What a little Moonlight Can Do.”

2003: Serene Renegade (René Marie): A soulful tour-de-force, -Marie takes you inside herself. She’s lusty on “Red Leather Shoes”; defiant on “The South is Mine”; and funky and swinging on “A Hard Day’s Night.”

2010: Blow Away (Janis Mann): Mann has a beautifully textured voice and well-honed jazz sensibilities; her hushed phrasing and lean sense of swing wrings out the nuances of her songs.

2011: American Road (Tierney Sutton Band): A daring feat of interpretation that stretches the boundaries of a uniquely American repertoire drawn from the folk, gospel, musical theater, and classic pop traditions.

2011: The Gathering (Diane Schuur): Only a boundary breaker like Schuur could transform a program of country classics into a soulful fusion of jazz improvisation and gospel passion. Like Ray Charles’s country recordings and Willie Nelson’s standards albums this is a genreless classic.

2012: Be Good (Gregory Porter): A near perfect synthesis of the soul and jazz aesthetics Porter reveals himself in a layered and eloquent fashion most notably on his brilliant original anthem “Painted on Canvas.”

Another listener’s dozen: These 12 recommendations provide a great sampler of some of the diverse and accomplished work happening in contemporary vocal jazz. Some other top-tier jazz singers doing exciting work include the following: Cyrille Aimee, Karrin Allyson, Dena De Rose, Kurt Elling, Roberta Gambarini, Kevin Mahogany, Karen Marguth, Catherine Russell, Jackie Ryan, Ian Shaw, Roseanna Vitro, and Cassandra Wilson.


I love eclectic pop singers because they embody the potential for different musical styles and cultures to intersect I have been exposed to a broad range of composers and styles listening to the artists listed below: Before pop music became overly balkanized artists had more opportunities to experiment and explore the music that interested them regardless of commercial expectations. Artists like Nina Simone, Aaron Neville, Maria Muldaur, and Eva Cassidy represent the aesthetic of artists who defy category and make great music without regard to genre. Below I highlight some key artists and the best albums to explore their styles: 

 Eva Cassidy: Born and raised in the D.C. area Cassidy was a regional star who died of melanoma in 1996. Posthumously national and international audiences discovered her far reaching talents. A great place to start is to listen to Live at Blues Alley (1996). She kicks off with a swinging soul drenched “Cheek to Cheek” and never lets up maintaining a similar level of poise and momentum throughout. One can only marvel at her versatility: She cooks on “Stormy Monday”; her “Autumn Leaves” will leave you in tears; and she takes you to church on “People Get Ready,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Oh Had I a Golden Thread.”

k.d. lang: lang is best known for her soaring pop ballad “Constant Craving” which became a Grammy winning pop hit in 1992, but it represents one dimension of her art. Born in Edmonton, Alberta lang began her professional career performing in country and country-punk groups. 1988’s Shadowland showcased her powerful voice and established her as contemporary student of the countrypolitan style perfected by Patsy Cline. 1989’s Grammy winner Absolute Torch and Twang was a progressive country album that revealed considerable songwriting prowess. lang took a stylistic turn toward what she termed “nouveau easy listening” music on her 1992 breakthrough Ingénue (1992) an eclectic suite of yearning songs unified by a mosaic-like quality that gives it an unusual integrity; it’s like block of melancholia rendered in the most sensuous of shades. In addition to “Craving” songs like “Miss Chatelaine” and “The Mind of Love” showcase her range and her luscious voice. lang followed up Ingénue with several albums of original material and made her mark as an interpreter of classic and modern pop songs.

Ronnie Milsap: If you only know Milsap for country hits like “Pure Love” “It was Almost Like a Song,” and “Stranger in My House” his first album Ronnie Milsap (1971) recorded on Warner Brothers will blow you away. The influence of R&B singers like Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland and fellow eclectic Charlie Rich is apparent. He blazes through the torchy “Dedicate the Blues to Me,” and “Not for the Love of a Woman.” He also tackles gospel (“Sanctified”),  rock‘n’ roll (a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”), conceptual pop (“That Cat was a Junkie”), as well as country (Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the story Ends”) masterfully. He found his commercial niche in country but his debut, and the compilation Plain & Simple (1975) tell a fuller story.

Ella Mae Morse: Morse is an overlooked bridge figure whose style brought together country, jump blues, and swing. She is best thought of as a proto-rock ‘n’ roll singer. Morse was a popular singles artist throughout the 1940s recording hits like “Cow Cow Boogie” and “Mr. Five by Five.” Whoever thinks pop was chaste before rock ‘n’ roll needs to hear songs like “Rockin’ and Rollin,’” “Have Mercy Baby” and “Rock Me All Night Long” all featured on the wonderful collection Best of the Rockabilly Years (2013).

Maria Muldaur: Born in New York as Maria D’Amato, Muldaur enchanted by blues, jazz, and folk music. She began her career as a fiddler and singer in the Even Dozen Jug Band, then joined the Jim Kweskin & the Jug band, and recorded two albums with her husband Geoff Muldaur, before divorcing and going solo. Her 1973 debut single “Midnight at the Oasis” featured on her acclaimed solo debut Maria Muldaur put her on the map. She’s recorded over 30 albums. I highlight three albums to introduce you to her art:  Waitress in a Donut Shop (1974) finds Muldaur recording swing jazz under the direction of jazz arranger Benny Carter, interpreting (then) contemporary songs by Kate McGarrigle, Allen Toussaint and Wendy Waldman, and exploring bluegrass and gospel tunes.  By the early 1990s Muldaur focused more on roots music and southern music styles. Louisiana Love Call (1992) is a spirited love letter to the music of New Orleans, featuring NOLA legends Dr. John and Aaron Neville. Muldaur’s performances of the title track, “Creole Eyes,” “Best of Me” “Dem Dat Know” and “Southern Music” will make you want to dance, swoon, laugh and bask. Muldaur’s first full-fledged exploration of the blues comes on the Meet Me Where they Play the Blues (1999). Working with a quintet on most cuts, and a brass band, she brings out the blue in a mix of ballads, swingers, and gospel. In the 2000s she recorded the brilliant blues trilogy, Richland Woman Blues (2001), Sweet Lovin’ Ol’ Soul (2005), and Naughty, Bawdy & Blue (2007).

Aaron Neville: Neville’s mellifluous tenor is one of the defining sounds of modern New Orleans music. Influenced by doo-wop and ‘50s R&B Neville was a regional favorite in the ‘60s who made his mark with 1966’s anthemic “Tell It Like It Is.” In the ‘70s Neville and his brothers performed together as the Neville Brothers and reignited his solo career in the 1980s. After recording two Grammy winning hit duets with Linda Ronstadt he released 1991’s Warm Your Heart. Neville summons a wide range of his influences including spiritual material like “Ave Maria” and the Caribbean gospel song “I Bid You Goodnight,” nods to idols like The Drifters (“Don’t Go, Please Stay”),  material by New Orleans writers Allen Toussaint and Randy Newman, and contemporary pop and soul songs. He continued this eclectic approach on three follow-up albums in the 1990s, and has recorded albums focused on gospel, jazz standards, and classic soul and R&B.

Charlie Rich: Rich scored multiple hits in the early ‘60s at Sun Records, but gained his greatest fame singing polished country ballads like “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl” in the 1970s. Before he became a star he played in a jazz band and was shaped by blues and gospel music. Feel Like Going Home: Essential Charlie Rich (1997) comes closest to capturing his range. Soul singer, country singer, rock ‘n’ roller, swinger and gospel singer it showcases the breadth of his talents.

Linda Ronstadt: Ronstadt became the most popular singer of the 1970s by virtue of her powerful voice and mastery of song styles. Her fusion of classic pop, country, rock, and folk with contemporary songs reached an early peak on Heart Like a Wheel (1975) a classic and highly influential album featuring her renditions of songs popularized by The every Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Betty Everett, as well as newer songs by The McGarrigle Sisters, James Taylor and Little Feat. She successfully explored this approach for the remainder of the decade before exploring new wave, pre-rock pop, rancheras, and country. Winter Light (1993) which features covers ‘50s doo-wop and ‘60s pop-soul, as well as country, folk, and new age pop, is one of her finer mid-career efforts.

Nina Simone: The “High Priestess of Soul” was one of popular music’s fiercest talents. An accomplished classical pianist who fell into singing Simone initially began recording jazz-oriented music material but quickly expanded her repertoire to include bluegrass classics, Yiddish folk ballads, rock songs, gospel, and other forms. Her debut Little Girl Blue (1959) is a great introduction to her early years, as is Anthology: The Colpix Years (1996). But full Simone immersion requires purchasing Four Women: Nina Simone Philips Recordings (2003) a boxed set featuring all of her albums for Phillips. You get a dazzling array of tunes recorded during some of her most politically active years including signatures like “I Put a Spell on You,”  “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Feeling Good,” “Four Women,” “Go Limp” plus songs from composers as varied as Chuck Berry and Duke Ellington.  

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,” and fresh interpretations of songs like “Teach Me Tonight” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Her second and third albums Second Childhood (1975) and It Looks Like Snow (1976) are her most varied albums. For a fuller overview start with Very Best of Phoebe Snow (2001) which features some of her later work and some sizzling rare live cuts.

Jennifer Warnes: Warnes’s honeyed sound is best known to soundtrack fans for duets like “Up Where We Belong” and “I’ve Had the Time of my Life.” Warnes, whose sound has elements of Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt is an exceptional interpretive singer with impeccable taste, solid musicianship and a broad range. She has had pop, country, and soft rock hits but her most acclaimed work is 1986’s Famous Blue Raincoat a Leonard Cohen songbook. The broadest showcase of her talents, however, is The Hunter (1992) where her gifts as a composer shine alongside her interpretations. There’s jazzy pop, rock ballads, and light R&B as well as a beautiful Acadian style waltz, a neo classical ballad, and other surprises.


Throughout adulthood I’ve developed an appreciation of popular music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll by listening to singers rooted in swing, bebop, big band and cabaret singing traditions. I was intimidated at first, but the more I listened the more I loved much of it and felt compelled to learn about the history of this era of pop music. Understanding 20th century popular music requires close listening to some of the titans, like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Frank Sinatra, who redefined how singers approach music and the way we listen. Below are some of my favorite albums from some of the greats. Most are from cabaret, pre-rock pop or genres of vocal jazz including bop, swing, and the cool school. Since singers are often only as good as their material I also include an anthology that was pivotal to my growth as a listener, featuring a wide cross-section of classic vocalists that focuses on the evolution of American popular song. (I’ve arranged the 31 singers by the order in which they began recording).

 Louis Armstrong (1925): Jazz’s Ur text is arguably the work of the Louis Armstrong. Armstrong mastered the cornet and trumpet, authored and perfected the jazz solo, pioneered scat singing, and was most responsible for translating jazz’s instrumental technique—swing rhythm, blues feeling, improvisation—into a vocal style defined by his distinctive gravelly timbre and personalized approach to lyrics. By applying jazz technique vocally and daring to personalize music, especially in his approach to lyrics, he revolutionized popular music. To understand his instrumental innovations, and hear a few vocal selections, I refer you to The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony 2000), recorded from 1925-29, which is regarded as the most important recordings of early jazz.

 The Essential Louis Armstrong (Sony Legacy, 2004) tells his story as a vocalist beautifully and thoroughly. Armstrong’s 1945-69 recordings are summarized nicely on the three disc box set Louis Armstrong: An American Icon (Hip-O Records, 1998). You get a cross-section of vocal selections, instrumentals, live performances, a sample of his delightful duets with Ella Fitzgerald, and selections from his latter career including “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” Individual albums deserving your attention include Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (recorded 1954; Sony, 2008), Satch Plays Fats (recorded 1955; Sony 2008) and The Great Summit: The Master Takes featuring Armstrong and Duke Ellington (recorded 1961; 2001), and Best of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve, 1997).

 Helen Humes (1927): A delightful singer who began singing blues as a teenager in 1927 before graduating to singing with the Basie Orchestra in the 1940s. She has a light voice and an exuberant style. She is excellent at swing tunes, ballads and blues. Her best album, Songs I Like to Sing! (1960) includes some of her finest performances including her clever signature “Million Dollar Secret.”

 Mildred Bailey (1928): The first female singer to tour with a big band. Trained as a pianist Bailey had a high, sweet voice and a very natural swinging sound. Adept at ballads, blues, and swing her prime material is on Complete Columbia Recordings Volumes 1 and Volumes 2 (Definitive Records, 2000).

 Billie Holiday (1933): Holiday’s legacy as a musician’s singer and as a tragic figure looms large in American history across generational and genre boundaries. Holiday infused jazz singing with advanced rhythmic and melodic abilities, an adult interpretive sensibility, and keen emotional intelligence. Influenced by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, and certainly aware of singers like Ethel Waters she moved vocal jazz and popular music forward. The best way to explore Holiday is to listen to her at different phases.

 Columbia’s Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles (2007) explores her earliest work singing novelties and rhythm numbers and growing into a solo leader, as well as her chemistry with musicians like Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. The Commodore Master Takes (2000) capture her in 1939 and 1944 sessions when she recorded signatures like “Strange Fruit,” “Fine and Mellow,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” Her recordings for Decca (1944-50), focused more on ballads and lusher pop settings, and included “Lover Man (Oh Where Can you Be?),” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and “Don’t Explain.” Among the flood of Holiday compilations either Billie Holiday’s Greatest Hits (Decca Jazz, 1995) or Priceless Jazz Collection: Billie Holiday (1997) provides a good single-disc overview. The Complete Commodore & Decca Masters (2009) also captures her middle period in three discs. Her last significant recordings were recorded on Verve from 1954-59. The label which has reissued the cream of the crop on Lady in Autumn: The Best of the Verve Years (1991) Completists will enjoy the six-CD The Complete Verve Studio Master Takes (2005).

 Ella Fitzgerald (1936): Fitzgerald recorded her first sides with the Chick Webb orchestra in 1936. Fitzgerald was originally interested in dancing but she successfully performed a version of “Judy,” inspired by Connee Boswell and won over the audience at the Apollo Theatre amateur night jumpstarting a most distinguished career in jazz. Known for her silken voice, unfailing swing, legendary scat solos, and impeccable musicianship Fitzgerald was the definitive popular jazz singer. Her balanced interpretations made her a composer’s dream, and her warm persona appeal to generations of listeners.  Fitzgerald’s career can be divided into phases: She was the band singer for the Webb Orchestra, taking the lead when he passed in 1939. Fitzgerald recorded prolifically for Decca Records from 1943-1954. She also absorbed the vocabulary of bebop showcased on virtuosic performances on 1945’s “Flying Home” and 1947’s “Oh Lady Be Good.” The Best of Ella Fitzgerald (GRP Records, 1995) provides a 20 song overview of the era. More detailed is 75th Birthday Celebration: The Original Decca Recordings (1993). During her time at Decca she perfected the mellow tone and flawless intonation that defined her later career in the 1950s. Two albums, a 1950 Gershwin set and a set of standards recorded in 1954, showcased her promise as a mature interpreter of standards. They are compiled together on Pure Ella (GRP Records, 1994).

 Her manager Norman Granz helped Fitzgerald become an international star at Verve Records by encouraging her to record high quality material, which she did famously on a series of songbooks recorded from 1956-64 dedicated to the finest American popular composers (e.g. Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc.). Each can be purchased individually or as part of the 16 CD boxed set. Each is a fine album; my favorites: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1956) is the most jazz-oriented songbook; Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George & Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959) is the best introduction to Gershwin’s’ superb melodies. She also recorded duet albums with Louis Armstrong, various albums with Nelson Riddle, live sets like 1960’s Ella in Berlin (featuring her hilarious improvised take on “Mack the Knife”), and collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington among others. Among her non-songbook sets I recommend The Intimate Ella a beautiful voice and piano set; for a taste of Ella live I recommend Ella in Rome, Mack the Knife: The Complete Ella in Berlin, and Ella in Japan; some of her more satisfying eclectic sets include Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie!Ella Swings Gently with Nelson; and Whisper Not. After her stint at Verve she recorded middling country, pop, and holiday material at Capitol Records, and recorded various albums and concert sets for multiple labels to before recording prolifically for Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records in the 1970s and 1980s. Her finest showcase of this period is Ella and Oscar, recorded in 1975 with Oscar Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, and the four disc live set issued on Pablo called The Concert Years (Pablo, 1994), featuring her in her element, live settings, from the 1950s through early 1980s.

 Maxine Sullivan (1937): Sullivan began her career in the mid-1930s and scored a hit with a swing version of the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” After recording for about 20 years she took a hiatus from music and returned in the late 1960s. She thrived as a recording artist and performer until her death in 1987. Sullivan is a master swinger who interprets lyrics with understated emotion. She had a deft touch that has influenced generations of singers including Peggy Lee and Rebecca Kilgore. Two of her finest sets include the Harry Warren (“I Only have Eyes for You” “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me”) songbook, Spring Isn’t Everything (1986) and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Jule Styne (1987).

 Lee Wiley (1939): Known as “Southern Comfort” Wiley perfected a sultry, understated style you can hear in singers like Peggy Lee, Barbara Lea, and Julie London. She also composed several classics including “Time On My Hands.” Wiley is best known for being the first vocalist to record songbook albums dedicated to top composers, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers & Hart and Arlen, from 1939-43. Follow Your Heart (2005) (double-disc) is an excellent collection of her songbook recordings and other signature tunes. Wiley also recorded three albums for Columbia Records, and two fine standards albums for RCA in the 1950s, whose highlights are collected on As Time Goes By (/1991). 

 Frank Sinatra (1939): The quintessential saloon singer and consummate swinger, Sinatra’s discography spans from 1939-95. I find his Tommy Dorsey Orchestra recordings a bit dull; his Columbia recordings in the mid-1940s-early 1950s are more enchanting and Portrait of Sinatra is an excellent summation of this era. But his Capitol recordings are where he finds his voice as an albums artist. He excels at dour torch albums and spirited swing sets. Three albums capture him at his best: In the Wee Small Hours (1955): Recorded after a breakup with actress Ava Gardner Sinatra is at his most vulnerable and musical on this legendary suite of torch songs. Songs for Swinging Lovers (1956) is one of the most accomplished and influential swing albums ever. Many a singer has attempted to emulate Sinatra’s swinging versions of “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” “Anything Goes,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” He repeated the torch and swing approach at Reprise Records, but one album that stands out is Frances Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) where he and the Brazilian composer record standards and bossa novas in a spare hushed setting that results in one of Sinatra’s most tender and enjoyable performances.

 Kay Starr (1939): Starr was a regional big band singer with a hearty voice and bluesy sound who became a popular singer in the late 1940s at Capitol records where she scored hits like Bonaparte’s Retreat Side by Side and Wheel of Fortune. Though these got her on the radio her gifts were showcased more fully on a series of albums recorded at Capitol from 1959-62. Movin’/Movin’ on Broadway (packaged together on CD downloadable separately) find are brassy swing sets. Movin’ (1959) has movement theme, and features a strong Count Basie flair especially on songs like “Goin’ to Chicago” and her take on “Sentimental Journey.” She applies this sultry Basie approach to musical theater classics on Broadway (1960) with jazz takes on songs like “On the street Where You Live” and “I Love Paris.” Jazz Singer (1960) is a fun mix of swing songs and ballads; I Cry By Night (1962) is a deliciously melancholic torch album with definitive versions of “More Than You Know” and superb versions of “Lover Man” and “Baby Won’t You please Come Home.”

 Nat “King” Cole (1942): Cole was a pioneer who excelled as a bandleader and pianist in the Nat King Cole Trio, as a popular solo singer, and as a personality on TV and film. His recorded output is readily available. The best distillation of his years leading the Trio and a solo is the 1992 boxed set Nat King Cole. You get the full breadth of his talents as a bandleader, balladeer, and swing singer. As far as individual albums: You can sample his Trio work on The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio: Vocal Classics (1942-46) (1996); His best ballads album is The Very Thought of You (1958); Cole swings mightily on the small group jazz set After Midnight (1957), as well as the big band sets Just One of Those Things (1957), Welcome to the Club (1959), Tell Me All About Yourself (1960), and Let’s Face the Music and Dance (1964).

 Dinah Washington (1943): Washington earned the title Queen of the Blues for inflecting all of her work with a blues sensibility. Sassy, funny, and dynamic she had a full life with seven husbands and a legendary reputation for being a no-nonsense performer. Washington’s recordings for Mercury Records and EmArcy are collected on a seven volume boxed set compiled in the 1980s, however a more direct route is the excellent First Issue: The Dinah Washington Story a double-disc compilation featuring ballads, blues, R&B and pop performances in a variety of arrangements. There are also several live cuts.  Her entire recorded output for Roulette Records is also available for download. The single disc The Best of the Roulette Years (1993) is a great introduction to her 1961-63 output. Among her individual albums Dinah Jams (1954), recorded with drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown is her most jazz-oriented performance; For Those in Love (1955) is full of gorgeously rendered ballads; her Roulette recordings are generally weaker but on Back to the Blues The Queen reminded everyone of her deep blues roots on this soulful, haunting, and sexy journey including her epic “Nobody Knows the Way I feel This Morning.”

 Sarah Vaughan (1944): A few years before Fitzgerald began learning bebop from musicians in her band in the mid-1940s Sarah Vaughan had been introduced to the style, and by 1944 she was steeped in the innovative approach which emphasized harmonic improvisation, rapid tempos, and showcased a virtuosity based more in listening than dancing, which was more emphasized by swing. Vaughan was trained in piano and organ as a child, and after winning amateur night at the Apollo was recruited to play piano in Earl Hines’s band. Billy Eckstine recruited her to sing in his band where she perfected her mastery of the style.  Interlude Early Recordings 1944-1947 (2000) and Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory) introduces her earliest recordings. Interlude emphasizes jazz and features some of her work with Eckstine’s band, including players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; the Musicraft material is lusher and more pop-oriented.  Vaughan’s stint at Columbia Records is well summarized on The Divine Sarah: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (1990). Here her transition to a popular singer is complete as she bathes ballads like “Deep Purple,” “Black Coffee,” and “You’re Mine You” in her luscious vibrato atop soaring strings.  Some relief is provided by the inclusion of selections from 1949-1950 sessions with jazz musicians.

 Vaughan’s association with Mercury Records, which focused on pop and the jazz subsidiary EmArcy captures her peak. Sarah Vaughan, In the Land of Hi-Fi and Swingin’ Easy are three of the best vocal jazz albums ever recorded, and each showcases Vaughan’s talents as a balladeer, swinger and improviser flawlessly. They have been packed together with two live albums from the’50s as Sarah Vaughan: Divine: The Jazz Albums 1954-1958 (2013). For a sample of her pop side The George Gershwin Songbook (1957)and Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (1958) display her voice to full effect. Vaughan switched to Roulette Records in 1960. She recorded everything from lush mood albums to a set of light classical fare. Her best includes two voice-and-guitar albums, After Hours and Sarah + 2; a Benny Carter conducted swing set The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan; a Carter conducted torch set The Lonely Hours; and a moody jazz organ set Sarah Sings Soulfully.

 Vaughan’s triumphant return to Mercury was the dynamic live set Sassy Swings the Tivoli. Mercury made various attempts to modernize Vaughan by having her record ‘60s pop songs with mixed results. She could sing anything and make it sound great but her best recording from this period was her last Mercury album, 1967’s Sassy Swings Again, a swinging big band set showing her as skillful and passionate as ever. Vaughan took a break from recording and then returned on Mainstream Records. Her best is Live in Japan a double-disc concert featuring her in total command. In the 1970s she signed with Norman Granz’s independent jazz label Pablo Records. Highlights were 1977’s I Love Brazil!, and the brilliant small group sets 1978’s How Long Has This Been Going On? And 1982’s Crazy & Mixed Up.  After her death her estate released Soft & Sassy recorded for radio and showcasing her brilliance circa 1961. One cannot state how exciting Vaughan was live. Five live albums showcasing her in all her glory include Sassy at Ronnie’s; Live at the 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival; the Grammy winning Gershwin Live!; In the City of Lights; and Live at Rosy’s released in 2016.

 Mel Tormé (1944): Tormé is a major vocalist, as well as a skilled arranger and composer,  and occasional actor, who never gained the fame of peers like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, but musically his accomplishments are comparable to the most elite voices in the jazz pantheon. Possessing a clear full voice, that seemed to grow in flexibility and range as he aged, a broad repertoire and a gift for epic improvisation he is best experienced on The Mel Tormé Collection 1944-1985 is a lovingly assembled boxed set featuring his early work in the Mel-Tones, and highlights from his solo singer at Bethlehem, Verve, Atlantic, Columbia, and Capitol Records. The set gives you a taste of him singing ballads, showtunes, swing, and bop; there are also great live performances and a highly informative book.  His range and virtuosity are pretty stunning. The Best of the Concord Years captures some of his finest live and studio performances from 1983-96 and is worth hearing. But the boxed set is the place to start. Some of his best individual albums include Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley (1956) and Lulu’s Back in Town (1956), which rank among the best vocal albums of the 1950s and the 1990 live sets packaged together as Two Darn Hot that showcase him in his element.

 Rosemary Clooney (1947): People associated Clooney with ephemeral ‘50s pop hits like “Come on a My House” and “Mambo Italiano” for decades until she released a string of jazz oriented albums for Concord Jazz from 1977-2002 that demonstrated her stunning maturity and rock solid musicality. Prior to Concord she recorded a classic album with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (Blue Rose) and recorded one of the finest ballad albums ever. 1963’s Love arranged by Nelson Riddle, with whom Clooney had an affair, is the height of rapturous orchestral pop. Riddle’s dramatic arrangements illuminate the lyrics of yearning ballads like “Invitation” and “Someone to watch Over Me” in grand fashion and Clooney’s singing is equally entrancing.  Her Concord output is consistently strong and The Best of the Concord Years is an excellent survey of these recordings. Among her Concord recordings Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Johnny Mercer (1987) and Do You Miss New York? (1993) are my favorites.

 Johnny Hartman (1947): Hartman is an expert balladeer who sings in a sumptuous baritone. He recorded from 1947-83 and is well-respected by musicians and singers. His most famous album is John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963) the only collaboration between Coltrane and a vocalist. Though its only six songs it is a superb master class in the art of ballad singing. Hartman’s renditions of “Lush Life,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “My One and Only Love” have never been surpassed. 1980’s Once in Every Life is nearly in the same class. On this masterful set of intimate ballads, including “I Could Write a Book” and “Wave,” Hartman sings with disarming ease. Though its never been issued on CD you can re-create the album digitally by combining the Hartman selections are featured on the Bridges of Madison County soundtrack and the companion collection Remember Madison County into one.

 Tony Bennett (1950): Since his early recordings at Columbia circa 1951 Bennett has had a national fame as popular singer. His endurance is a testament to robust talent, good management, and his commitment to his aesthetic. The best introductory survey to his career is the 1991 boxed set Forty Years: The Artistry of Tony Bennett, which was supplanted in 2004 by Fifty Years of Bennett. Bennett signatures like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “I Wanna Be Around,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” are featured as are collaborations with Count Basie, Bill Evans and other jazz luminaries. Once you’ve mastered the basics of Bennett’s first three decades you’ll continue to be impressed by his growth as an interpreter. He experienced a major commercial and cultural resurgence in the 1990s. Almost every album he’s released since the 1990s is worthwhile, and he continues to thrive in the 2010s. On The Art of Romance (2004) his finest album Bennett, at the age of 78, masterfully interprets a repertoire of top tier songs (by composers like Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Stephen Sondheim) with a signature passion and precision. 2015’s The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, recorded at 89, is also one of his finest. He applies his still mighty voice and interpretive prowess to a suite of some of the most harmonically rich and challenging songs in the canon with aplomb. 

 Cleo Laine (1950): Laine established herself as a big band singer in the 1950s and a stage actress in England before making a U.S. impact with 1973’s Cleo Live at Carnegie Hall concert set. Laine is renowned for her ability to wield her multi-octave voice with absolute control and precision, especially in unison scats with her musical director and husband John Dankworth. Some of the best displays of her prowess include the superb songbook albums Cleo Laine Sings Sondheim (1988) and Solitude, recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (1995), and the dynamic Jazz (1991). Her two best all-around albums are more low-key displays that showcase her range with tenderness. These include the is a lovely voice and piano album That Old Feeling (1984) featuring sumptuous interpretations of classic ballads including the title track, “Tenderly,” and “Once in a While” and Blue and Sentimental (1994) an eclectic triumph with standards, classic blues, duets and contemporary ballads (“Afterglow,” “The Lies of Handsome Men”) that have become new standards.

 Freddy Cole (1952): Nat King Cole’s gifted brother Freddy debuted in 1952 but didn’t find his stride as a recording artist until the early 1990s. He possesses a similar voice to Nat but with a huskier timbre and is also a skilled pianist. In the early 1990s Cole’s association with producer Todd Barkan led to an on ongoing series of excellent jazz albums. Cole is particularly charming live. The most well-rounded and representative sample of his style is The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (2009). He is a romantic who takes his time with ballads; he swings mightily on mid and up-tempo songs; and he is an excellent blues singer. My favorite track is his spirited hometown homage “On the Southside of Chicago.” 

 Carmen McRae (1954): As an interpreter of music and lyrics vocalist, pianist and composer McRae ranks in the top tier of jazz vocalists. Though she was trained classically she pursued her interest in jazz beginning as a pianist and becoming a singer. McRae idolized Billie Holiday, who recorded her song “Dream of Life” in 1939. McRae herself recorded prolifically at Decca Records in the 1950s and the cream of these is featured on the boxed set I’ll Be Seeing You: A Tribute to Carmen McRae (1995). Two excellent single disc overviews are Carmen McRae Sings Great American Songwriters (1993) and Here to Stay (1992). Each showcases McRae’s voice at its peak and is a marvel of sensible, subtle interpretation. From the 1960s-1980s she bounced around labels recording for Kapp, Columbia, Mainstream Atlantic, Concord Jazz and various independent labels. Her voice has a huskier tone and her interpretations take on a wry edge. The highlight of this period is the concert album The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1972) though almost all of her albums feature excellent performances. In her final years she recorded a set of lyricized Thelonious Monk songs and a Sarah Vaughan Tribute album at Novus Records. In 1993 Novus released two lively concert tributes to Billie Holiday, recorded in 1983 at the Blue Note and broadcast on WBGO, as For Lady Day Volumes 1 & 2. McRae is in good voice and she showcases her personality vividly getting bluesy on “Fine and Mellow,” interjecting hilarious asides in “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” and conveying the range of Holiday’s repertoire balancing well known tunes with obscurities.

 Chis Connor (1954): Connor is associated with the cool jazz vocal style a minimalist approach emphasizing understated emotion associated with Anita O’ Day June Christy and Connor. Connor recorded with the Stan Kenton Orchestra before recording solo several sides for Bethlehem Records and switching to Atlantic from the mid-1950s-early 1960s. Some of her tirumphs included a Gerhswin songbook album and albums of torch songs. Like a lot of jazz oriented singers she struggled in the late 1960s and 1970s but had a bit more success in the 1980s-2000s recording for various labels including Highnote Records. 1963’s At the Village Gate is a thrilling live set in which the normally “cool” Connor, backed by a jazz band, sizzles. “A Lot of Livin to Do” and “Something’s Coming” have never been more exciting. The London Connection (1994) is an excellent compilation of live performances recorded in London in 1990 that finds her swinging hard and approaching ballads as tenderly as ever.

 Etta James (1955): Though James was one of the most successful R&B singers of the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to classics like “All I Could Do is Cry,” “Tell Mama” and “At Last,”  she was influenced by jazz and has always included standard material in her repertoire. In the 1990s James began periodically releasing jazz oriented albums that showcased her still powerful voice in more intimate settings. The best of these is Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday (1994). James delivers poignant renditions of Holiday’s signature ballads in her own style. She infuses torch songs like “Don’t Explain,” “Body and Soul” and “These Foolish Things” with the kinds of nuances that come from a lifetime of hard living and lessons learned.

 Bobby Short (1955): Short was the most accomplished and influential male cabaret singer ever. As a recording artist and the headliner at Café Carlyle for 35 years he developed an international following for his vast song knowledge and vibrant interpretive style. Among the many albums he recorded over 46 years 1987’s Guess Who’s in Town: Bobby Short Performs the Songs of Andy Razaf is his finest. Short is a perfect interpreter of the overlooked composer of classics like “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Black and Blue,” “S’posin,” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Short also sings some of his lesser known material and showcases his comfort with jazz and blues on numbers like “I’m Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town.”

 Johnny Mathis (1956): Mathis pulled off a hat trick when he began his career in the mid-1950s by appealing to youngsters with his buoyant singles like “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not for Me to Say” and drawing in adults with his lush moody albums, and distinctive tenor. Of all of his albums (he’s recorded over 70!) 1962’s Rapture and 1963’s Romantically, (which are packaged together on CD) are orchestral suites of ballads that provide the full Mathis experience. 1958’s Swing Softly (packaged with the 1958 ballads album Warm) is one of his most appealing sets. The balladeer lets loose and gently swings on several classics including “Love Walked In” and “Like Someone in Love.”

 Ernie Andrews (1957): Andrews is probably jazz’s most underrated male singer. Soulful, funky and swinging he debuted in the mid-1940s as a teenager with a few singles, but his jazz career took off in 1957. Andrew is a legend of Los Angeles’s Central Avenue jazz scene thanks to his warm, personable approach. Though he has recorded for six decades his albums are hard to find. His 1965 concert with Cannonball Adderley, Live Session! (available digitally) is a masterful performance of funky jazz. It comes closer than any of his records to exposing his full range as an artist. Andrews has an excellent rapport with his audience and sings quite personably. His performance of “I’m a Born World Shaker” is sandwiched perfectly between boastfulness and confidence without sounding abrasively cocky. He mines “I’m Always Drunk in San Francisco” subtly which maximizes its ironic emotional impact.  “Since I Fell for You” and “Work Song” receive gritty, confident performances, and he shows his lighter side swinging easily on “Big City.”  This album gave Andrews anthems and established his combination of soul, funk, wit and swing. The intimacy and energy captured here makes this one of the finest small group jazz sessions of its day.

 Antonio Carlos Jobim (1959): Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim composed sounds that became the bedrock of the bossa nova sound including “The Girl From Ipanema,”  “So Danço Samba,” “Wave” and “The Waters of March” to name a few classic standards. Influenced by classical music, jazz and Brazilian musical traditions Jobim created songs with beautiful melodies, complex harmonies and poetic lyrics that were provided a second wave of songs for interpretive singers. The boxed set The Man from Ipanema is a lovingly assembled history of Brazil’s most influential composer featuring vocal and instrumental exemplars of saudade

 Shirley Horn (1960): A vocalist and pianist known for her cool measured approach to interpreting material, Horn had two distinct career phases. After performing in the Washington D.C. area, and gaining the respect of performers like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Horn gained enough national attention to release several fine swing and ballad sets in the early to mid-1960s.  She then spent almost two decades focusing on her family. Though she recorded for Steeplechase and Audiophile Records in the 1980s, beginning in 1987 her Verve recordings made her a jazz superstar earning her acclaim, Grammy Award recognition, and a new audience. Arguably one of the most influential singers of the last few decades her albums are uniformly accomplished. 1987’s Close Enough for Love is particularly appealing. 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.”

 Andy Bey (1961): Pianist and vocalist Bey debuted with two classic bop-oriented albums recorded with his siblings The Bey Sisters before going solo. After recording and performing only sporadically in the ‘70s Bey made a comeback in the mid-1990s and continues releasing albums every few years.  A master of space and time, he is a sensualist and on American Song (2004) he luxuriates in the melodic and harmonic contours, taking his time redefining classics like “Lush Life” and “Prelude to a Kiss” into spacious arias.

 Carol Sloane (1962): Sloane made a splash in the jazz world in the early 1960s substituting in Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and recording her acclaimed debut Out of the Blue. A superb singer with a lovely vocal tone, advanced rhythmic and improvisational skill, and a savvy understanding of lyrics she struggled to follow-up her initial success. Though she recorded some solid independent sets in the 1970s and early 1980s it was not until she released 1989’s Love you Madly and 1990’s The Real Thing on Contemporary Records that the mainstream jazz world took full notice of her gifts. On both she gives perfect performances of ballads, swings, and bebop tunes in a warm, swinging style. She followed these with several excellent albums recorded for Concord Jazz, DRG Records, Highnote and Arbors Records.

 Sheila Jordan (1962): A longtime student of bebop’s masters, especially Charlie Parker, Jordan paid her dues as a singer learning her craft in the 1940s and 1950s and debuting with the influential 1962 vocal bop classic Portrait of Sheila. An improvisational risk taker, she pioneered the voice and bass format and became an in-demand jazz educators at jazz clinics. She is a thrilling live performer and fearless improviser who has dedicated her career to jazz. I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass (2000) a 1997 concert recorded with bassist Cameron Brown is a great distillation of her essence. She sings signatures, like her the “Bird/Tribute/Embraceable You” medley and her original “Sheila’s Blues.” More than a concert his is a beautiful extension of her storied life.

 Lou Rawls (1962): Before Rawls burned up the R&B charts in the late ‘60s with songs like “Love is a Hurtin Thing” and “Dead End Street,” and crossed over in the ‘70s with sleek disco-soul songs like “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and “Groovy People” he recorded albums in the swinging blues sound perfected by singers like Joe Williams.  Black & Blue/Tobacco Road, recorded in 1962 and 1963 respectively, and packed together, are superb displays of how the blues transcends decades. Black is a very blues-oriented set with Rawls’s modernized renditions of blues standards like “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Kansas City” sung confidently.  Tobacco Road is even bolder and more accomplished with contemporized versions of songs form the black song canon, like “Ol’ Man River” and “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South,” sung with a modern sensibility. He delivers wholly original versions of Southern themed material like Georgia on My mind, “Summertime” and “Tobacco Road” that are stunningly brilliant. Rawls went on to record pop and R&B for Capitol and Epic Records, before returning to more jazz oriented material at Blue Note in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 Barbra Streisand (1963): Since beginning her recording career in 1963 Streisand has stood out for her big beautiful voice and fresh interpretive sensibility. She established herself with classic pop and showtunes in the ‘60s and integrated more contemporary singer-songwriter pop and film themes into her repertoire in the1970s. Three sets that showcase he talents best include her superb return to musical theater on The Broadway Album (1985) with distinctive contemporary performances of songs from the finest Broadway shows including Porgy & Bess, Showboat, Carousel, Westside Story, The King and I, Company and Sunday in the Park with George. 1987’s One Voice found Streisand returning to live performing with confidence and precision; a great career overview. Her best album is 2009’s Love is the Answer which can be purchased as a single discs with an orchestra or as a deluxe set with a quartet. The quartet is my favorite.  47 years into her recording career the legendary Streisand delivers her most subtle and intimate recording yet featuring lovely renditions of top tier ballads including bossa novas, chansons, pop ballads and classic theater songs.

 American Popular Song: Six Decades of Songwriters and Singers: (CBS Special Products/Smithsonian 1984 (boxed set): A stunning, comprehensive five-CD set, focused on popular songs composed from 1910-55 performed by various singers from 1918-80 is one of the most ambitious collections of “The Great American Songbook.”  The music is accompanied by a superb book, featuring profiles of most of the major voices in American pre-rock style popular singing including jazz influenced singers, cabaret singers, singing actors/actresses, etc. The songs, including major works by composers like George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart, are among the finest popular songs ever written and are represented by versions that emphasize their original melodies and lyrics. A partial list of the stellar featured artists includes the following: Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Tony Bennett, Connee Boswell, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, Barbra Cook, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, Carmen McRae, Mabel Mercer, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Barbra Streisand, Sophie Tucker, Sarah Vaughan, and Ethel Waters.

 Other exemplary “classic” jazz/jazz-oriented voices: Lorez Alexandria, Ivie Anderson, Betty Carter, Jon Hendricks, Lambert Hendricks & Ross, Peggy Lee, Mabel Mercer, Mark Murphy, Anita O’Day, Ma Rainey, Annie Ross, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Scott, Bessie Smith, Dakota Staton, Ethel Waters, Joe Williams.

 Riffs, Beat& Codas readers stay tuned for Part 2: I look forward to sharing my country, R&B, pop and rock favorites in July!




Is your music cool enough? Reconsidering notions of ‘indie’ and ‘alternative’ music

The college students I work with, professional colleagues, and friends frequently describe bands or performers I’ve never heard of as “indie” or “alternative.” I frequently bite back at them by noting that indie does not describe a style of music, but rather a distribution channel.  In the late 1980s/early 1990s college rock stations were significant launching pads for new bands/solo acts who were too unconventional for mainstream pop radio (Think R.E.M.). The performers usually cut their teeth performing in local communities, released self-financed recordings, and after building audiences they were able expand regionally and gain enough of a following, and sufficient exposure, to be commercially viable for a major record label. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Hootie & the Blowfish (remember them?) are obvious examples of groups that followed this path and experienced tremendous commercial success.


Image source:

Image source:

For these bands indie simply referred to self-financed records distributed outside of the big pop machine. They had to build audiences organically by performing and selling their music themselves. A lot of innocence and purity is typically assigned to this process, but none of the bands mentioned resisted the commercial allure and broadened distribution offered by Warner Bros (R.E.M), Geffen (Nirvana), Epic Records (Pearl Jam), and Atlantic Records (Hootie & the Blowfish). In their 1990s heydays they each got on MTV and a radio station near you by pursuing major record label support. Whether you enjoy their music or not the indie aspect of their identity was generally less about a style than the issue of access. A major record label can get songs on the radio and albums in stores, as well as artists on TV, with a global scope and efficiency generally beyond that of smaller local and regional independent record labels. The record industry is not a static being, but major labels still have an edge.


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Image source:

Arguably, from a musical perspective R.E.M’s wan, cryptic style and the intense Seattle-bred sound of Nirvana and Pearl Jam differed stylistically from a lot of the music popular when they began so they did offer a sonic alternative. Hootie was essentially meat and potatoes rocks of the Mellencamp-Springsteen variety, with sprinkles of Crosby, Stills & Nash, except their music was a little poppier, lighter and less angst ridden than the “alternative” music popular in the mid-1990s. Indie and alternative, once referred to as modern rock are essentially shifting terms, yet they still have affective meaning for today’s listeners. A lot of conventional pop/rock music is labeled indie or alternative and it falls on deaf ears for me because these labels allow the listeners to posit it against something you’re listening to that’s totally vulgar and mainstream. 

 In 1995 filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the Dutch Dogme 95 manifesto in an effort to distinguish an emergent avant-garde contemporary film aesthetic from mainstream Hollywood style films.   Directors like von Trier continue to carry this torch making unconventional, if often difficult and frustrating, films that nonetheless feel very far removed from anything coming out of Tinseltown.

 Popular music is comparatively more diffuse especially with the advent of the digital music revolution. The digital age has made it easier for musicians to promote and distribute music through channels relatively accessible to a wide range of folks. You don’t have to tour when you can upload a video on YouTube. Granted this means the quality of music varies wildly, especially since there are fewer filters regarding quality. Record labels used to pay Artists & Repertoire (A&R) folks to travel and listen to bands to pick out future stars. The A&R system didn’t guarantee “quality,” but a person who acquires a working database knowledge of multiple acts over time and witnesses how performers operate in a live setting, as well as observing audiences’ reactions to musicians in the flesh is poised to offer a different level of critique than someone who pushes a thumbs up/thumbs down button on YouTube button.   

 Today when someone claims a musician is “underground” they are usually just referring me to a link that was shared with them through social media, and symbolically saying, “Here’s something out of the ordinary beyond pop.” Yet, this typically means listening to someone performing in an obvious commercial style (e.g. hip-hop, rock, R&B) rather than someone innovative. The whole music industry has had to scale down to accommodate music piracy as well as the rise of independent musicians distributing their own music. But the digital revolution is largely comprised of acts who want to be signed by major labels so indie is more a liminal state than a permanent wish, and it has little meaning aesthetically.


Are jazz musicians  and classical musicians America's truest indie artists? Image source:

Are jazz musicians  and classical musicians America's truest indie artists? Image source:

Jazz and classical music are the least popular musical genres commercially. According to 2014’s Nielsen Music U.S. Report 29% of music purchased is rock, followed by 17.2% Hip-Hop/R&B, 14.9% Pop, 11.2 % Country, and the remaining genres are single digit percentages: 3.4% Dance/EDM, 3.1% Christian/Gospel, 2.6% for Holiday/Seasonal and Latin, with Classical at 1.6% and Jazz at 1.4% Few recording artists in Classical or Jazz record for major record labels. Jazz musicians, who I know far more about than classical musicians, make limited profits from albums and rely heavily on various forms of live performance. Because jazz requires a more advanced ear than pop its practitioners are at the mercy of specialized radio stations, PBS stations, performing arts centers, nightclubs, and soundtracks. You rarely see jazz performers on network TV or hear them on pop radio. A substantial portion of jazz musicians self-release music on their own labels to generate reviews and (hopefully) garner enough buzz for them to become viable live acts. More often than not they finance their own recordings and fund them through day jobs. Jazz has become more institutional within college and even high school music curricula, and symbolically jazz is widely understood as a legitimate, compelling form of American art. But its symbolic stature is far removed from its commercial impact.

 The internet is a viable promotional channel but jazz audiences and consumers tend to be older listeners who are less likely to discover or purchase music digitally, and because jazz acts are less likely to be signed by major labels it is rarely a stepping stone to great fortune. In this sense the digital revolution is a tool, not necessarily a solution to sluggish sales and the lack if industry investment in jazz. Most internet acts are pop/rock/R&B or hip-hop, and are not likely to get signed by a major label. But they are more likely to get signed than a jazz or classical musician, thus jazz musicians are far more likely to begin and remain independent acts. Even understanding this reality I rarely-to-never hear anyone refer to jazz musicians as indie artists; the term remains deeply tied to modern rock and the feeling of status that comes with feeling that one has discovered or stumbled onto a so-called ‘underground’ act. So much of above ground pop strikes me as less of an “alternative” aesthetically than a continuation of well-rehearsed formulas that have simply gotten more exposure. The distinction seems as important now as ever as our filters for quality and distinction feel as diffuse as the internet itself.

 Further reading:





Sassy gets her due!

Sarah Vaughan (March 27, 1924- April 3, 1990) is the finest singer of popular music I have heard in a lifetime of listening. Her textural richness, infinite timbral range, sophisticated understanding of harmonic structures and bebop rooted improvisational skills are an irresistible combination to my ears. On March 29 the U.S. Postal Service issued a Forever Commemorative Stamp in her honor. As such she joins previous jazz luminaries who were honored in the Legends of American Music stamp series (including Mildred Bailey Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Bessie Smith) and the Black Heritage stamp series, which issued an Ella Fitzgerald stamp in 2007. My response: it’s about damned time. I totally geeked out recently buying a few books of her stamps, a commemorative booklet and a special faux postcard featuring the stamp. How often does one get to support great art and keep a vital government service afloat? Below is a reader’s guide to a representative sample of her vast discography, which spans from 1943 to 1990. Even 26 years after her death multiple albums, primarily concert sets, have emerged and confirmed her mastery of the concert form.

"The Divine One" Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) finally gets a Forever Commemorative Stamp!

"The Divine One" Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990) finally gets a Forever Commemorative Stamp!

Most recently Resonance Records released the 1978 concert Live at Rosy’s recorded with her trio Paul Schroeder (piano), Walter Booker (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) at the New Orleans club. In addition to singing signatures like “Send in the Clowns” and “Poor Butterfly” she surprises with a playful version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” a lovely rendition of the ‘70s standard “Everything Must Change,” a swinging “A Lot of Livin to Do” (from Bye Bye Birdie) and hilarious patter. 34 years into her career her she has a slightly raspy patina but her falsetto flourishes and rhythmic instincts are as fresh as ever.

Vaughan's newly issued 1978 live set, Live at Rosy's (Resonance Records, 2016) recorded with her trio in New Orleans is a triumph.

Vaughan's newly issued 1978 live set, Live at Rosy's (Resonance Records, 2016) recorded with her trio in New Orleans is a triumph.

As a child musical prodigy, who won the Apollo Amateur Night, played second piano for Earl Hines’ Band and had a front row seat while Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie honed bebop—Sarah Vaughan had music in her blood and then some. That she went on to have a stellar and influential career over nearly six decades as a jazz and pop singer was not surprising. However her boundless versatility, dazzling interpretive creativity, and constantly deepening musicality were virtually unprecedented among jazz singers.

With her luminous, wide-ranging voice and rich grasp of popular song structures she synthesized the vocabularies of swing, bebop, and classical singing into one of the most distinctive expressive vocal styles of the 20th century. Possessing major technical skill and gaining interpretive perspective over time hers is one of the most exciting and diverse careers in popular music. Fortunately, like her esteemed peers Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington the majority of her recordings remain in-print and are widely available for purchase.

 Vaughan’s earliest recordings from the early to mid-40s, available on Interlude and Musicraft, feature her young alluring voice in big band and orchestral settings. Vaughan’s recordings are generally divided between bebop anthems like “Interlude” (aka “A Night in Tunisia”), fine versions of jazz and pop standards--“Lover Man,” “The Man I Love,” and “What A Difference A Day Made”-and lush commercial fare such as “It’s Magic.”

Vaughan did not scat during this period but, like Billie Holiday, she incorporated subtle rhythmic and melodic embellishments that personalized her material, evidenced in her benchmark recording of “Mean to Me.” Though many of the pop arrangements are typical of the era Vaughan stands out, professional but never cold and appealing without sounding insipid. Town Hall is a rough, but enjoyable, recording of a 1947 concert where Vaughan showcases her impeccable skill and vocal prowess to an enthusiastic crowd. She also duets with Lester Young on two numbers.  

After her success at Musicraft, Continental and smaller independent labels Vaughan recorded for Columbia from 1949-53. Typical of the era she recorded lushly arranged ephemera (“De Gas Pipe She Leaking Joe”) and pop standards “Summertime,” “Black Coffee,” etc. The import Linger Awhile/The Great Sarah Vaughan is a reissue of two LPs, essentially compilations of singles, from the period but they are more for posterity than enjoyment though Vaughan sounds glorious as always. Though Vaughan’s Columbia period is mostly well covered on Divine, Classics Records’s Sarah Vaughan 1951-1952 fills in some interesting gaps. The arrangements are as lush as ever and Vaughan sings in her usual colorful, luscious style. However there are some interesting song choices including the spirituals “Ave Maria” and “A City Called Heaven,” delivered in a majestic style, the overlooked “If Someone Had Told Me” and several period songs of varying quality, that are rarely included on U.S. compilations. 

Her skills as an improviser are more evident on four recordings featured on Columbia’s Hi-Fi compilation which mixes pop recordings with adventurous bebop inflected interpretations on “Nice Work (If You Can Get It),” “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” “East of the Sun (West of the Moon),” and “Come Rain or Shine.” 

Vaughan recorded what is arguably her most impressive work for Mercury Records from 1954-1960. Predictably she recorded many lush commercial sides that made maximum use of her lush, gorgeous voice and the skills and in house arrangers like Hal Mooney. Many of her 50s and 60s Mercury albums are out-of-print but available thanks to (the expensive) Complete boxed set series on Mercury. Both her pop and jazz oriented recordings warrant attention. 

Jazz highlights of this period include the gorgeous intimacy on Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown which features superb, definitive versions of jazz and pop standards highlighted by an effervescent “Lullaby of Birdland,” and languorous “April in Paris.” Land of Hi-Fi features blazing versions of “Cherokee,” and “How High the Moon” mixed with lush versions of “Over the Rainbow” and “Soon.” On Swingin’ she reprises “Lover Man,” debuts the clever “Shulie-A-Bop” and swings hard on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “All of Me” featuring a fierce scat solo. No Count Basie, available on Complete, features her superb scat “No Count Blues” and a delicious version of Horace Silver’s “Doodlin’” with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics.

The Berlin set, recorded with Hines’ bandmate Eckstine, the Gershwin songbooks and the Broadway collection showcases Vaughan as both singer and actress. The combination of Vaughan’s velvet tones with Hal Mooney’s sweeping orchestrations provides a perfect dramatic punch for some of the most finely crafted theatre songs of the 20th century. The Complete set also features numerous live concerts where Vaughan’s impeccable musicianship and charming persona make for very intimate listening including her recordings at Mister Kelly’s and her London Opera House set where she famously flubs “Thanks for the Memory.”

In the early 60s Vaughan signed with Roulette, joining other jazz luminaries--Eckstine, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams and Count Basie. At Roulette she recorded the requisite mood music and lounge albums—Dreamy, Snowbound, The Divine One collected on Mosaic’s Roulette boxed set-- popular in the 60s. She also recorded a solid, if predictable album with the Count Basie band, a flowery semi-classical set and a session comprised of ephemeral pop singles.

Despite these diversions she made some of her most invigorating jazz statements at Roulette. Her two Benny Carter arranged recordings (The Explosive Side and The Lonely Hours available on a two-fer as the Benny Carter Sessions) are flawless exemplars of dynamic swing and burnished torch singing, respectively. The Quincy Jones-arranged You’re Mine You is an entertaining lounge set with a great version of “One Mint Julep,” an ecstatic near operatic “Maria,” and fine versions of Sinatra style tunes—“Witchcraft,” “The Best is Yet to Come,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” For the spare, intimate side of Vaughan check out the bass and guitar set After Hours and its sequel Sarah + 2 (available only on the box set) For the soulful side of Vaughan check out what is perhaps her most satisfying Roulette album, Sarah Sings Soulfully a jazz organ set featuring stellar performances of “Sermonette,” “Easy Street,” “Round Midnight,” and “The Gravy Waltz.”

Vaughan heralded her return to Mercury with the sizzling Tivoli, a set of concerts recorded in Copenhagen, compiled as a two-disc set. Vaughan combines the swagger of a veteran jazz musician with a newly acquired operatic flair. Vaughan surveys highlights of her career gracing everything from “Over the Rainbow,” “I Feel Pretty” and “Maria” from Westside Story, to “Misty,” and the scat “Sassy’s Blues” with her beautiful voice, supported by a supple, swinging band. Alas, this kind of jazz artistry was short-lived during her second Mercury stint.

Inevitably, rock’s commercial domination affected the recording choices of jazz singers who wanted mainstream attention. Like Ella, Carmen, Tony Bennett and Sinatra, Vaughan tried her hand at contemporary 60s pop with mixed results. Her new Mercury phase largely included competent but trendy recordings including a perky Latin-pop set, a Henry Mancini songbook, sets mixing contemporary pop and rock tunes (i.e. Lennon-McCartney, Bacharach-David), and a set of songs organized around men (i.e. “Jim,” “Alfie,”) collected on Complete. Perhaps in response to commercial pressures Vaughan ended her reign with a superb swing set Sassy Swings Again where she reminded listeners of her formidable powers on sensational versions of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Take the A Train” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” among others.

Sarah Vaughan’s recordings at Mainstream Records, where she recorded from 1971-76 vary from garish attempts to apply her rich style to inappropriate ‘70s pop/rock to sublime displays of her prowess, notably Live in Japan. In between these efforts is her recording of Legrand tunes on the rich and ripe Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand. Her singing is as sultry as ever but the often bathetic lyrics and overwrought arrangements can bring out her most indulgent instincts.

Two of her finest and most representative concert recordings from the 1970s include her two Live in Japan Vols. 1 and 2 sets recorded in 1973, and a 1971 Monterey Jazz Festival Concord Records released in 2007 for the first time. On both sets her sense of humor, musical control and audience rapport are abundant. She sings some of her favorites including standards like “’Round Midnight,” “There Will Never Be Another You,” “I Remember You” and “The Lamp is Low” alongside a few contemporary hits of the era such as “Love Story” (Japan Volume 1) and “And I Love Him” (Monterey). Two of the highlights of the Japan include her nearly wordless rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” and languid, delicately unfolded versions of “My Funny Valentine” and “The Nearness of You.” On Monterey she cuts loose on the five minute “Scattin’ the Blues” and a jam session with jazz titans Zoot Sims and Clark Terry.

From 1969-71 Vaughan did not record for any record labels, concentrating on live dates and her early 70s recordings for Mainstream were pop records with little tie to her jazz roots. After her death several concert recordings of the era have surfaced on independent labels including her great 1969 Newport Jazz performance on Jazzfest Masters. The 70s were mostly a transitional period for Vaughan. Her voice grew darker and huskier in tone and timbre, she interpreted lyrics with more feeling and her newfound flair as a live performer made her one of the premiere jazz singers in concert. 

Vaughan’s recordings for Norman Granz’s Pablo Records are amazing recordings both for the stylistic range Vaughan covers and the quality of her instincts four decades into her career. How Long is a brilliant small group set recorded with Ray Brown and Joe Pass where she reinvents the title track as a light samba and adds classical touches to old warhorses like “Teach Me Tonight” and “More Than You Know.” Brazil is a skillful set of suadades and sambas recorded in Brazil and often featuring their composers and star musicians including Milton Nascimento, Dori Caymmi, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Vaughan has rarely sounded as blissful and energetic. Copacabana is a delightful but less consistent set of similar material.         

The two-volume Ellington sets are uneven but feature many fine performances including a sexy soulful duet with Eddie “ ‘Cleanhead’ ” Vinson on “Rocks in My Bed,”  a hard swinging “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” a wistfully dramatic take on “I Got It Bad,” and a hushed, ethereal “Daydream.”  Send in the Clowns is most famous for her unique, near-operatic performance of “Send in the Clowns” but she really shines on a swinging “All the Things You Are” and a reprise of her signature “If You Could See Me Now.” Her finest set of the era is the stunning self-produced Crazy and Mixed Up which mixes everything from romantic standards, such as “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” to Ivan Lins’s “Love Dance” and “The Island,” and an all scat version of “Autumn Leaves.”

At Pablo Vaughan seemed to be improving with age and two live 80s sets confirm just how in her element she had become. Her Grammy winning concert Gershwin Live! is a brilliant jazz and classical synthesis where she gives grand, sweeping interpretations of Gershwin including a “Porgy and Bess Medley,” a stunning 10 minute “Man I Love,” an intense “My Man’s Gone Now” and a hard swinging “Fascinating Rhythm.” She reprises her mastery of Gershwin on the superb live Paris set City of Lights. A virtual career retrospective she sings virtually all of her signature songs including confident, often playful versions of “Wave,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Sassy’s Blues,” “Misty,” and “If You Could See Me Now.”

Tragically Vaughan, a lifelong smoker, died in 1990 but left behind a rich, substantial career. Shortly after her death, Vintage Jazz Classics released a 23-song collection of unreleased performances on I’ll Be Seeing You: The Sarah Vaughan Memorial Album. Spanning from two lush pop studio recordings from 1949 to eight jazz performances from ~1961-62, it is a very entertaining glimpse of Vaughan in multiple styles and settings. It does not fully cohere but it is a trove of good to exceptional performances across a decade. The two opening pop recordings, “Tonight I Shall Sleep” and “While You Are Gone” sound like Columbia era Vaughan where her voluminous voice and infinite colors uplifting her material even in the most enveloping orchestral settings.

 However her jazz roots are on full display in several brilliant performances from a 1960 set at the Madison Square Jazz Festival and the ‘61/’62 recordings. Her perfect sense of swing, intricate soloing and masterful balladeering abound especially on two superb versions of “Just One of Those Things,” a breath-taking solo on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and some of the finest versions of “But Not for Me” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Elsewhere she and Nat King Cole glide through a live “Love You Madly” with a few words from Ellington and a fun take on “Teach Me Tonight” with Joe Williams where she almost forgets the lyrics and they cheerfully laugh it off before continuing on.

Several fine recordings have surfaced since her death such as the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival performances on the Linger Awhile compilation and the excellent discovery of a 1961 radio recording Soft & Sassy where Vaughan’s vocal purity and improvisational prowess sparkle in a minimalist piano, bass and drum arrangement.

Collectors Choice Music’s Divine Lady of Song is a 20 song collection of rare radio and concert performances by Vaughan and small groups. No recording dates are featured but they seem to stem from the late 50s-early 60s given the fullness of her voice and the repertoire. As always she sings beautifully and thrives within the lean spacious arrangements. The songs include signatures like “Just One of Those Things,” “What is this Thing Called Love,” and unexpected songs including “Lover Come Back to Me,” “Careless” and “Gone with the Wind.”  

For the budget conscious shopper Verve, Roulette and Pablo have all released various single-disc collections of her finest recordings on CD, and in digital form, making her career readily accessible for the curious.  



One-Five scale: Poor, Mediocre, Good, Great, Classic

Early Recordings:

♦♦♦♦ Interlude: Early Recordings 1944-1947 (Naxos Jazz Legends, 2001)

♦♦♦♦ Complete Musicraft Master Takes (The Jazz Factory, 2001)

Columbia Records:

♦♦♦   Linger Awhile/The Great Sarah Vaughan (Columbia/Sony Music Entertainment UK, 2001)

♦♦♦♦ The Divine Sarah Vaughan: The Columbia Years 1949-1953 (CBS Records, 1988)

♦♦♦½ Sarah Vaughan 1951-1952 (Classics Records, 2003)

♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi (Columbia/Legacy, 1996)

♦♦♦♦½ The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (compilation)                                      (featuring: ♦♦♦♦  After Hours, 11949-1952; ♦♦♦♦  Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi, 1950; ♦♦♦♦  Gershwin Live, 1982; ♦♦♦ Brazilian Romance, 1987)

Verve, Mercury and EmArcy:

♦♦♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan featuring Clifford Brown (Verve, 1954/2000)

♦♦♦♦♦ In the Land of Hi-Fi (Verve, 1955)

♦♦♦♦♦ Swingin’ Easy (Verve, 1957)

♦♦♦♦   Sings Broadway: Great Songs from Hit Shows (Mercury Records, 1957/1995)

♦♦♦½  The Irving Berlin Songbook [with Billy Eckstine] (EmArcy Records, 1957/1984)

♦♦♦♦   The George Gershwin Songbook, Volume 1 (Verve 1957/1990)

♦♦♦♦   The George Gershwin Songbook, Volume 2 (Verve 1957/1990)

♦♦♦♦♦ Sassy Swings the Tivoli (EmArcy Records, 1963/1987)

♦♦♦     Viva Vaughan! (Mercury Records, 1964/2001)

♦♦♦      It’s A Man’s World (Mercury Records 1967/2002)

♦♦♦♦♦ Sassy Swings Again (Mercury Records 1967/1983)

♦♦♦♦♦ The Complete Sarah Vaughan on Mercury Volumes 1-4 (boxed sets)

Roulette (Various Roulette CDs have been available as single CDs; most are downloadable in this form as well):

♦♦♦      Count Basie/Sarah Vaughan (Roulette Records, 1961)

♦♦♦♦    After Hours (Roulette Records, 1961)

♦♦♦♦♦  The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan (Roulette Records, 1961)

♦♦♦♦    You’re Mine You (Roulette Records, 1962)

♦♦♦♦♦  Sarah Sings Soulfully (Roulette Records, 1963)

♦♦♦♦♦  The Lonely Hours (Roulette Records, 1964)

♦♦♦½    Sweet ‘N’ Sassy (Roulette Records, 1963)

♦♦♦♦♦   The Complete Roulette Sarah Vaughan Studio Sessions (boxed set) (Mosaic Records, 2002)


♦♦♦ Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand (Mainstream Records, 1972)


♦♦♦♦   I Love Brazil! (Pablo Records, 1977/1994)

♦♦♦♦♦ How Long Has This Been Going On? (Pablo Records, 1978)

♦♦♦½  Duke Ellington Songbook One (Pablo Records, 1980)

♦♦♦½  Duke Ellington Songbook Two (Pablo Records, 1980)

♦♦♦     Copacabana (Pablo Records, 1981/2002)

♦♦♦♦   Send in the Clowns [with the Count Basie Orchestra] (Pablo Records, 1981)

♦♦♦♦♦ Crazy and Mixed Up (Pablo Records, 1982)

Concert Recordings and Radio Transcriptions:

♦♦♦♦♦  Live in Japan Vol. 1 (Mainstream Records, 1973)

♦♦♦♦♦  Live in Japan Vol. 2 (Mainstream Records, 1973)

♦♦♦♦½ Sassy at Ronnie’s (Ronnie Scott’s Jazz House Records, 1977/1991)

♦♦♦♦    Gershwin Live! [with Trio and L. A. Philharmonic Orchestra] (CBS Records, 1982)

♦♦♦♦    In the City of Lights (Justin Time Records, 1985/1999)

♦♦♦♦    I’ll Be Seeing You: The Sarah Vaughan Memorial Album (Vintage Jazz Classics, 1990)

♦♦♦♦    Jazz Fest Masters (Scotti Brothers, 1992)

♦♦♦♦♦  Soft & Sassy (Hindsight Records, 1993)

♦♦♦½    One Night Stand: The Town Hall Concert 1947 [with Lester Young] (Blue Note 1997)

♦♦♦♦    Divine Lady of Song (Collector’s Choice Music, 2004)

♦♦♦♦♦  Live at Monterey Jazz Festival (Monterey Jazz Festival Records/Concord, 2007)

♦♦♦♦½ Live at Rosy’s (Resonance Records, 2016)




Gender and genre at the Grammys

Tapestry (Carole King), The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill) and 21 (Adele) are female helmed albums that won Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1972, 1999, and 2012 respectively. Were they the “best” albums of the year?—possibly. Within the parameters of the Grammys, which are conferred by the industry and tend to reward commercially successful albums with some modicum of critical success, these albums defined a certain period commercially and were relatively non-controversial choices.


This past February when Taylor Swift accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year for 1989 she informed the audience that she is the first woman to receive the award, considered the Grammy’s most prestigious honor, twice. She continued, “… I want to say to the young woman out there, there are going to be people along the way who try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame. But if you just focus on the work and you don’t let those people sidetrack you, someday when you get where you’re going, you will look around and you will know it was you and the people who love you who put you there, and that will be the greatest feeling in the world.” Many writers and critics interpreted this as a direct response to comments Kanye West made about Swift in the lyrics of a recent song “Famous.”

 Though I have zero interest in the supposed feud I think it’s interesting to consider the Grammy’s record of recognizing female artists in the most prestigious category. Just as many critics questioned the lack of racial diversity at the Academy Awards, especially in the acting categories, the Grammys have a mixed record in recognizing women and certain genres in the Album category.

 As an industry award commercial success and broad appeal are integral. Independently released albums and albums without a hit single are almost never nominated. The first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year was Judy Garland whose 1961 double disc concert album Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall is a dynamic showcase of Garland’s stage command and a powerful trip through her repertoire.  The album also topped the albums chart for 13 weeks. 1989 was also a chart-topping album; it stayed at the top for 11 non-consecutive weeks and spawned multiple hit singles. In retrospect its win was predictable—though its competition included acclaimed albums from country (Chris Stapleton’s Traveller), hip-hop (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly), R&B (The Weekend’s The Beauty Behind the Madness), and rock (Alabama Shake’s The Sound & The Color) 1989 had the biggest commercial impact and the broadest appeal.

 Among the women nominated for Album of the year since the Awards’ 1958 inception five have received three or more nominations. Four of the five won the ward at least once, and when they don’t win the album prize they typically receive a Grammy in performance categories like Female Pop Vocal Performance. Barbra Streisand, who won for 1963’s The Barbra Streisand Album, has received the most nominations, including six for albums released from 1963-66 and nods for 1980’s Guilty and 1985’s The Broadway Album.  Here’s their commercial profile

 Album Title                             Highest Chart position

The Barbra Streisand Album    8

People                                         1

My Name is Barbra                    2

Color Me Barbra                        3

Guilty                                           1

The Broadway Album               3

 My Name is Barbra and Color Me Barbra were both tied to TV specials aired on CBS so in a sense they have a multimedia tie-in that may have boosted their prominence. Guilty, which featured three popular singles, was written, arranged and produced by the creative team (the Bee Gees, Albhy Khaluten and Karl Richardson) behind the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the Bee Gees' Spirits Having Flown was a safe nominee. It lost to Christopher Cross, but Streisand and Gibb won for their debut “Guilty.” The Broadway Album lost to Paul Simon’s Graceland but won Streisand a Female Pop Vocal Performance award.

 The remaining women have three nominations. In order of seniority, Bonnie Raitt won for 1989’s Nick of Time and was nominated for 1991’s Luck of the draw and 1994’s Longing in their Hearts. Before the Grammys Nick had peaked at #22. After the win it rose to the number one spot. Luck peaked at number 2 and Longing peaked at number one. Luck lost to Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable with Love won her a Rock Vocal Performance Award, Rock Vocal Duo or Group and Female Pop Vocal Performance.

 Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut album was nominated for Album of the Year but lost to Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required. She won the Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single “Saving All My Love for You.” Her sophomore album Whitney was the first by a female singer to debut at number one on the album charts; it featured four number one hits. Though she lost to U2’s The Joshua Tree she won for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Houston reached her commercial and awards peak with The Bodyguard soundtrack which won Album of the Year as well as Record of the Year and Female Pop Vocal Performance honors for “I Will Always Love You.”

 Mariah Carey’s debut was nominated for Album of the Year, as well as Record, Song, and Female Pop Vocal Performances for Vision of Love. Quincy Jones’s Back on the Block won Album, Phil Collins won Record (“Another Day in Paradise”), and Julie Gold won Song for “From a Distance.” Carey won Best New Artist and Female Pop vocal Performance for “Vision.” 1995’s Daydream debuted at number one and earned six nomination including Album of the Year but lost to Alanis Morissette’s 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. 2005’s Emancipation of Mimi earned eight nominations, and won three in R&B categories, but lost U2 on the Album award for How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.

 Swift’s Album of the Year winner, 2008’s Fearless, was a chart topper with strong showings on the pop and country charts. 2013’s Red completed Swift’s transition from a country identity to pop, staying at the top for seven non-consecutive weeks and earning her a second Album of the Year nomination. This year she triumphed again with 1989 which featured the popular singles, “Shake it Off,” “Bad Blood” and “Blank Space.”   

 To summarize, the albums most likely to be nominated for Album of the Year by female performers are typically commercially successful pop-oriented albums. If it’s the best-selling album of the year the chances might be enhanced. Among the albums referenced above Streisand’s debut was a landmark for traditional pop vocal and cabaret music.  Her other albums were essentially restatements of her talents. Though Houston and Carey’s earliest albums are somewhat formulaic musically, in terms of influence their debuts helped them become arguably the most influential pop-soul singers of the last 30 years, inspiring a raft of imitators. Carey’s Daydream is probably the definitive album to blend pop and hip-hop soul production values via songs like “Always be My Baby” and “Fantasy.” Nick, Luck and Longing are not especially innovative but they’re well-executed albums that helped Raitt gain greater industry stature after paying dues since the 1970s. Swift’s career is too new to assess her artistic impact, especially as she has shifted from country to pop. She is the closest thing to a commercial sure thing besides Adele, Beyoncé and Eminem so I’m sure her future albums will continue to garner Grammy attention.

 The commercial nature of the award has certainly influenced male winners including repeat winners like Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and U2. But male performers have arguably been recognized for a wider range of genres. For example Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters (2008) was an acclaimed jazz album mixing vocal versions of Joni Mitchel’s songs with instrumentals. Within the jazz community the set was a hit but its popularity grew significantly after Hancock won. Many viewed the win more as a nod to Hancock’s accomplishment as a veteran musician and Mitchell’s as an influential songwriter and performer than a reflection of the best music recorded that year.

Artistically speaking some of the most innovative and/or acclaimed albums recorded by female performers in the pop/rock/soul/country sphere were never nominated for Album of the Year even if they were recognized in genre categories. Some examples include Aretha Franklin’s album I Never Loved a Man (1967) and Lady Soul (1969), Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis (1969), Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971), Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Imagination (1974), Phoebe Snow’s debut Phoebe Snow (1974), Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams (1977) and Cry Like a Rainstorm Howl Like the Wind (1989), Donna Summer’s The Wanderer (1980), Anita Baker’s Rapture (1986), Jennifer Warnes’s Famous Blue Raincoat (1986), Madonna’s Like a Prayer (1989), Mary J. Blige’s What’s the 411? (1992) and The Breakthrough (2007), Toni Braxton’s debut album Toni Braxton (1993) and Secrets (1996), Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989) and The Velvet Rope (1997), P!nk’s Missundaztood (2001) and The Truth About Love (2010) and Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid (2010). Jazz, gospel, New Age and classical albums are almost never considered for thee Album category though Natalie Cole’s winner Unforgettable with Love and Diana Krall’s nominated When I Look in Your Eyes were big enough  jazz hits commercially to squeeze in.

 In terms of genre the Grammys were originally founded to distinguish “quality” pop (e.g. pre-rock pop and jazz) from “commercial” pop (e.g. rock and roll, R&B). As such the Album winners tended to fall under the pop and cabaret labels. The recognition of bossa nova (Joao Gilberto and Stan Getz’s 1964 winner Getz/Gilberto), rock (The Beatles’ 1969 winner Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band), country-pop (Glen Campbell’s 1968 winner By the Time I Get to Phoenix), R&B (Stevie Wonder’s 1974 winner Innervisions), and hip-hop (Lauryn Hill’s 1999 win) represent slight breakthroughs beyond the most obvious pop lens. The Grammys are frequently behind the curve. Bob Dylan was not recognized in a major category until 1997 for example. They are also generally better at recognizing pop/rock breakthroughs like Sgt. Pepper and Graceland than other genres. For example in the 1970s an innovative soundtrack like Superfly, or a landmark R&B album like What’s Going On were unlikely contenders in the general categories whereas a lot of commercially popular but ephemeral material (e.g. Starland Vocal Band) made the cut. 

 In 1995 after Tony Bennett’s Album win for MTV Unplugged inspired a backlash the Grammys retooled the nomination process to ensure a more diverse and representative group of nominees through a special nominating panel. This created a pattern whereby each year there’s a perfunctory attempt at multi-format representation. For example, in 2010 the nominees included a bluegrass/country flavored album (winner Raising Sand by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant); R&B (Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman); hip-hop (Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III); mainstream pop/rock (Coldplay’s Viva La Vida); and modern rock/alternative (Radiohead’s In Rainbows).

 The artistic gerrymandering represented by the Album nomination format seems well-intentioned but ineffectual. In this regard the genre categories seem more interesting because voters are comparing music within a genre rather than essentially selecting an overall winner. At the risk of narrowcasting it seems a bit unlikely that consumers are comparing Chris Stapleton to Kendrick Lamar, so what does it mean to reward one over the other? A good comparison is the Album award at the NAACP Image Award. The ceremony tends to focus on music made by performers who identify within the black diaspora. This is often R&B/pop-soul, which can be limiting, but there’s some tacit recognition that black performers are often overlooked by awards shows honoring the most widely known music. 

 Cultural questions always pertain to any informed critique of the ways our culture recognizes and institutionalizes popular art. A bias toward commercialism is an obvious site of contestation for the Grammys, but related to the commercial question is the matter of who do we conceive of as making musical art as opposed to just commercial music? What musical genres do we correlate with “art”? How do commercial expectations impact artists’ abilities to transcend genre expectations? Identity, genre, notions of art and commercial expectations are inextricably linked in popular music. Taylor Swift’s win for a slickly produced highly commercial pop album strikes me less as a victory for female artists (all of its multiple co-producers were men except for Swift) or distinctive aspects of women’s expression than an extension of a formula that typically benefits men but is open to women who conform to certain industry norms. I am more concerned that young female artists, who are willing to risks, are better able to garner access to record music and broad distribution than for them to limit themselves to Grammy formulas.




Pop singer deaths—you’re killing me: On the deaths of pop musicians and our fragile personal canons

In my inaugural Riffs, Beats, & Codas blog post (in February 2015) I addressed the deaths of Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson emphasizing how longstanding aspiration for black singers to “crossover” diminishes their sense of reality and health.   I revisit death this month because since the beginning of 2016 David Bowie, Otis Clay, Natalie Cole, and Glenn Frey are among the popular singers who have died. By almost any quantitative metric their deaths have inspired established old fans, and attracted new fans, to purchase their recordings (Bowie’s release Blackstar debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200—his first), watch videos on YouTube (my favorite is a gospel charged duet between Houston and Cole on “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), and craft multimedia tributes to their artistry. While I won’t do that here (I posted an essay on Cole from Learning to Listen in January), this strange onslaught of deaths reminded me of an episode from a few years ago.


Image source:

Image source:

In 2010 I was attempting to draft an essay on one of my favorite musicians of all time, Phoebe Snow, whose “Poetry Man” grabbed my ear as a child, and whose fluid phrasing has forever held me under her spell. I couldn’t remember a detail and did a Google search only to discover that she was hospitalized for a stroke. She died shortly after my search and I was stunned. How did I not know that she was sick? I had recently purchased a stellar 2008 live album (Phoebe Snow Live, Verve Records) and remained in awe of her range, versatility, and soul. How could her voice be muted?


Image source:

Image source:

Part of my sadness was the loss of a great singer, as well an abrupt reminder that I was aging as. This sounds obvious, but singers are a gauge for mortality because they are touchstones of our existence. We grow up with them and age as they age. We live through their promising debut albums, their navigations of trends, their fashion mistakes, their childish feuds with other singers, and their ill-considered musical experiments because we love their music and what they represent to us.  


Image source:

Image source:

When I revisited Bonnie Raitt singing, “I see my folks they’re getting old/I watch their bodies change/I know they see the same in me/And it makes us both feel strange” (in 1989’s “Nick of Time”) at some point in my 20s I lost my innocence about aging, and death. Which is to say the big gap I imagined between my parents and myself shrank suddenly. I was no longer the “kid” far removed from the inevitable, but part of the adult world comprised of people hoping to survive.  Since I use my parents’ ages as another gauge of “old” and “young,” like a mental security blanket, seeing people younger than my parents die, especially pop singers, who always seem immortal and inevitable to the young, was stunning. If “star x” dies other treasured musical/cultural touchstones could pass as well. Musicians’ deaths, as well as those of other artists, reveal the fragility of our personal cultural universe. When our heroes and benchmarks and inspirations pass away our part of our world diminishes. And who will replace them? Can they be replaced?

 Pop music listeners tend to experience a growing gap between the music we discovered, mastered, and grew up with, (“our music”) and what’s popular in the mainstream. As I wrote in my October column (“‘My’ music and theirs”) it’s hard to keep up with the mainstream sometimes and we get easily set in our ways. We can admire some new music but it fights to secure a place in our personal canon. Or, we are willing to integrate the new as long as it is somewhat recognizable and fits within what we value formally.  For example, rock critics warmed up to U2 in the 1980s and Coldplay in the 2000s because their music and politics reminded them of “classic” rock groups so they’re easier to embrace than more radical bands outside of rock.

 This concern about canons is more of a middle aged-and-beyond issue, but it will reach the “young” soon enough. For someone like myself, who was born in the mid-1970s and came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of the music popular during my youth was made by singers born in the 1940s and 1950s. As we approach 2020 many of these singers are aging gracefully and still thriving artistically (i.e. Patti LaBelle, Maria Muldaur, Aaron Neville, Barbra Streisand), even if they are understood as “heritage” artists. Others, like Linda Ronstadt, have been silenced by disease, or have declining vocal resources, but the blow is softened by the volume of great music they have recorded.  Singers born in the 1960s and 1970s (i.e. Mary J. Blige, Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey) have only reached middle age, and yet they struggle continually to balance their natural talents and styles with the pop imperative to remain current.  


Image source: Photo by Bobby Bank/Wireimage.

Image source: Photo by Bobby Bank/Wireimage.

The death of a musician, or actor, or dancer we admire, but never knew, operates differently than the deaths of partners, relatives or friends. But where those are usually mourned very publicly and ritualistically within communities, the death of an artist is mourned differently to a person. While there are many ways to pay tribute to artists through the written word and visual homages, there’s also an internal disruption of order, like displaced chess pieces. Thinking about the deaths of Jackson, Houston, or more recently blues icon B.B. King, I’m reminded of those moments when I hear a song by them and I’m startled into remembering they’re no longer here. I can relish their memory in my head but I have to move on with my ears.




The Art of Independence: A Riffs, Beats, & Codas interview with jazz vocalist Karen Marguth

San Francisco Bay Area jazz vocalist Karen Marguth is one of the most acclaimed vocal jazz artists to emerge in the 2000s. Marguth is an independent musician who has released six albums as a leader including The Best Things, Carols Everywhere, All the Waiting, Karen Marguth, A Way with Words, and Just You, Just Me. 2009’s Karen Marguth (Wayfae Music) earned four and a half stars in Downbeat magazine and is considered her breakthrough. 2013’s A Way with Words, and 2015’s Just You, Just Me have also earned strong critical recognition.


Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright © Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright © Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Riffs, Beats, & Codas recognized her voice and bass album Just You, Just Me (recorded with bassist Kevin Hill) as one of the finest new albums of 2015 in the November 2015 blog “2015’s Raves & Faves.” Marguth is an instructional coach for the arts and literacy in a school district in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes periodically on her blog Marguth on Jazz and previously hosted “The Vocal Hour” a weekly radio show on Fresno’s KSFR.

 In late December I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Marguth over email about her career as an independent recording artist, the process of recording Just You, Just Me, and her philosophical approach to the arts. Below are her reflections.

 R, B, & C: To begin: In the music industry what distinguishes the career of an independent artist from a non-independent artist?

  KM: The first thing that comes to mind is the sense of creative control that independent artists have. When you connect yourself to a producer or a label, you give away control of some aspect of the creative process, as well as some of your earnings. In one case, I considered working with a label that would allow me to create whatever album I wanted, and then I would pay them to take over control of things like manufacturing the physical product, and deciding how and where to promote it. For many artists, who don’t want to deal with the business side of things, this is a perfect relationship.

 Another valuable aspect of being independent is that you are free to move with the ebb and flow of your own muse. I can’t imagine having any outside pressure on my process, for example, being required to meet someone else’s deadlines, or adjusting my vision to meet someone else’s taste, or having to select songs for some marketing person's target audience. 

 The challenge of being independent is that it’s a lot of time and effort to manage things, and you have to be willing and able to book gigs, manage rehearsals and studio time, acquire recording rights, pay for photography/design work, and do all the mailing out to radio and reviewers and such. If you enjoy the process of learning how to run your own business, then being independent is a joy.

 Finally, I think each artist has their own goal, their own definition of “success.” For me, I am as much in love with the details of the process as I am with final products and performances.  

 R, B, & C: Your response is very illuminating in terms of the sheer scope of responsibility and the struggle for artistic and creative control. Just You, Just Me has gotten consistently positive notices. As an independent artist how impactful is popular media support for your work?

 KM: Media support is that rare, elusive gem for an independent artist. I used to work at a jazz radio station, and the volume of CDs that come in each day would astound you. I’m talking hundreds of CD’s each week. It was impossible for us to listen to every CD. I did a show about female vocalists, so I would sift through the bins for those and try to listen to every one, but even in just that small category there were dozens to consider each month. I would imagine that the same is true for magazines and reviewers; there are just too many CDs to consider. 

 If a CD comes in from a well-known promoter, or a respected record label, then it definitely gets listened to, that's just the reality. So, as an independent artist, I know that I may mail out 350 CDs and not get a single spin on radio or a single positive word from anyone. But again, for me, I love the process of making music so much that I'm not really focused on what others may or may not say about it. 

 Once, I was corresponding with the great John Clayton, and I shared with him a great review I’d gotten. His response was so lovely and perfect. He wrote: “Do remember that while we celebrate these groovy and uplifting reviews, would it have affected your art, your expression, your joy and commitment if it had only received one star? My mentioning that is not to add some sort of dark cloud to the party.  It is to encourage you, stand next to you in support of what you do, no matter who encounters it. Keep doing what you do.  You and your art are too important to the world.”

 I didn’t address impact. It helps tremendously. After I received my first review in Jazz Magazine of France, you better believe I ordered stickers with quotes from the review, stuck them onto every CD, and mailed those out to hundreds of radio stations and reviewers. 

 And it made a difference. Shortly thereafter, I got reviews in both Downbeat and Jazz Times, and a steady trickle of CD sales and downloads began. 

 R, B, & C: Speaking of bassists: You have written previously about working with and learning from bassists Kevin Hill, Jason Jurzak, Sam Rocha, and Pat Olvera.  And Sheila Jordan pioneered the bass and voice duo style. What attracted you to the format?

 KM: I started learning to sing jazz in a trad jazz band. When not singing, I’d sit back by the bassist (Jason Jurzak). From that spot, I could really hear what he was doing, and how he interacted with the other sounds on stage, how he prompted some things and responded to others. I tried to hum along with what he was playing, as he played, and learned a lot from doing that. As he made choices in the moment, my understanding of each song deepened, which informed choices I could make in the future. 

 I’m attracted to the bass lines in songs, the same way I’m attracted to the harmony lines when there's more than one vocalist. I’ve always been drawn to the roots of chords, and inventive counter-melodies. 

 I also just feel so happy when I hear a bassist who can really swing. I’m always looking for that sound, always so moved by it. 

 R, B, & C: One highlight of the album is the variety of the repertoire. For example, I adore Phoebe Snow and your choice of “Harpo’s Blues” was surprising. What shaped your song choices for the album?

 KM: Song choices are such fun. 

 I keep lists of songs that I love, and then I group them into categories that seem to fit together. Some songs, like “Harpo’s Blues,” end up in multiple categories. If a song keeps showing up, again and again, I’ll most likely record it or perform it at some point. 

 In the case of “Harpo’s Blues, I only discovered it five years ago, when someone came up after a gig and suggested it as a song I might like. I love it when people do that; I’ve found so many untapped beauties that way. I heard it, and loved it, and then researched everything I could find about it. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it. And, I found that very few people had covered it, so I knew it hadn’t been done to death. It’s such a gorgeous tune, with wonderful lyrics, and it’s strange that so few other people have recorded it. 

 And, the content of the lyrics resonated with me. I definitely get that feeling of grief and loss when a wonderful collaboration or project comes to an end. 

 When putting together the choices as a whole for this album, I considered tunes that I loved, that lyrically fit the idea of “just two people,” and which would feature Kevin's inventiveness.

 R, B, & C: This is interesting to me because I imagine vocal artists must have some system to decide on what to sing. There are some other gems that are relatively obscure that grabbed my ear. I enjoyed your rendition of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives Me” which I had only previously heard on a Dinah Shore collection. When did you first hear that one? Similarly, I was totally unfamiliar with “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood” and it’s fabulous. 

 KM: I was schooled on “Naughty Sweetie” by Brady McKay, a vocalists who tours on the Trad Jazz circuit and who wrote the hilarious fast verse on it. And “Lazy Mood” I learned from a Susannah McCorkle album I found at the radio station one day, as I was digging through female vocal CDs. 

 I feel like one of my responsibilities is to mine for those hidden gems from the past. I’m in agreement with Becky Kilgore that some of the finest songs were crafted before the 1960s, and that a jazz vocalist needs to be carrying those songs forward so they aren’t forgotten. 

I also think that there are songs that have been done too many times, over and over again, with no value added. If I can’t add something new to a song, or if there’s already a stunning version of it that's been done, then I'm wise to respect that and find an overlooked gem and present that instead. 

 R, B, & C: As an independent artist it seems that live performance is an essential aspect for sharing your art, as well as developing comradery with local and regional musicians. What role has the Fresno jazz scene played in shaping your artistry?

 KM: The Fresno jazz scene is almost entirely responsible for shaping my artistry.

 The “bad boys of Dixieland,” Fresno’s Blue Street Jazz Band, gave me my initial experiences with performing jazz. I'd been a listener of it all my life (thanks to the Columbia Record Club, with albums arriving every month throughout my childhood). But working with Blue Street pushed me to learn to sing many, many, many tunes. In some cases I was asked to master the band's arrangement; in other cases, I was asked to just know the tune and be ready in case it was called, to-be-arranged-on-the-spot. They didn’t ever make set lists, they'd just call tunes as they went, so I just had to have the tunes in my head and be ready if a tune was called. It was what I call scary-fun.

 Fresno also has several weekly jam sessions, an organization called Jazz Fresno which brings in performances, and several great venues which feature weekly jazz gigs. One band, Espacio, invited me to join them at their weekly gig for several years, and that collaboration deeply enriched my growth. Getting out a few times a week to either perform or listen to live performances is THE way that jazz artists develop. And the musicians there, well they’re just so open and supportive of each other. Everyone works gigs with everyone else, in varying and ever-changing configurations. I was made better by every single musician I got to hear or work with in Fresno. And last summer, I was invited to serve as an instructor at the Milestones Youth Jazz summer camp in Fresno, which was such a gift -- to see hundreds of kids there, at all levels, just loving the chance to learn and jam. 

 I’m not in Fresno now; I’ve moved to the Bay Area, so ‘'m back to that phase where I have to find connections and make gigs for myself. It's a new challenge. But I go back occasionally and record and perform in Fresno, and really really miss all the great musicians there.  

R, B, & C: As an educator working in a vulnerable field, the arts, how do you convey your passion for the arts to your students?  In a related vein, in addition to teaching and singing you are also a radio show host and blogger. What motivates you?

 KM: As an educator, I have found that children are inherently motivated and engaged by the processes in all of the arts, whether music, visual art, drama, or dance. When I’m able to incorporate arts into, say, a math or history or science lesson, student engagement shoots through the roof, and learning of concepts happens on a deeper level. Students start to lose interest in the arts when it becomes separated out from the academic curriculum and called “an elective.” It becomes something that's separate, extra, not-everyday. That’s when you start to hear kids say things like, “I can't take art, I'm terrible at drawing,” or “I can’t take choir, I can’t sing worth beans.”  Or, their parents say, “You don’t have time to take band, you need to get in all those AP classes!” 

  share my passion with students and colleagues by continuously pointing them to research on the benefits and rigors of artistic habits of mind. Fortunately, the pendulum in US public educations seems to be swinging back toward valuing at least music, if not the other arts, in a quality academic environment. 

 My motivation for doing what I do comes from a clear sense of my own purpose, and that has grown over a lifetime of trying different things, different jobs, and finding myself always circling back to the power of the arts and the creative process. There’s so much wickedness and worry and fret and garbage out there, but then look what happens to people when the aesthetics of their neighborhood is improved, beautified, or when live music is performed—they get uplifted, and they behave better towards others. It seems to me that we've gotten away from the things that sooth our souls, and connect us as human beings, and remind us of our common frailties and our goodness and our capacity for joy. Making some good jazz music, and advocating for the arts in education is my small way of adding some goodness to my community.   




The music you heard growing up: Some notes on "neo-classic" singers

Each month I post an excerpt from my essay collection Learning to Listen: Reflections on 58 great singers to give readers a taste of the bigger project. Allow me to explain the roots of the collection. There are certain musical figures like Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, and Patsy Cline who are so obviously great as artists and influences that it’s almost redundant to declare their greatness. They have also received multiple biographical treatments and appraisals. Adding to the established conversations on these greats is a sizable task; one that can easily distract us from recognizing less heralded singers. America remains a young nation and culturally we are in love with the past, almost to a fault.  We sometimes forget the complicated paths our most cherished idols have trod.

 Though the “classic blues” style of Smith (and foremothers like Ma Rainey) is an important contribution to early 20th century music the blues was regional black “gutter” music for decades before it became “respectable.” When Sinatra transitioned from a big band singer with Tommy Dorsey to soloist at Columbia Records he was a model solo singer, but thanks to poor musical direction he was considered nearly washed up in the early ‘50s before he switched to Capitol Records and worked with new arrangers.  Cline actually wanted to be a honky-tonker but she was a failure—too polished. Her producer Owen Bradley built the lush countrypolitan style around her voice and she found her place. 

 When we hear a classic song from the '50’s and '60s it’s pretty easy to find ourselves singing along, and even romanticizing its roots. There’s something very glamorous about the distant past, even when we were alive!  But we have a harder time reconciling our sense of quality with contemporary singers. I was reminded of this recently when Anita Baker’s song “Rapture” came over the speakers at a local restaurant. The song is a suitably dreamy ballad with a fluid melody and a sumptuous arrangement with little passages where Baker does some light scatting. Baker’s vocal sound and phrasing are directly influenced by Sarah Vaughan’s rich patina, and on some of her other hits the influence of gospel is also clear. In her singing many strands of American music come together.  Her music, especially 1986’s classic album Rapture, stood apart from other mid-1980s music. It was warmer, jazzier, more emotional, and managed to project tastefulness without sounding sterile. Though Regina Belle, Mikki Howard, and Sade occupied similar space stylistically, Baker’s approach has aged the best and represents the acme of the jazz inflected R&B sound. Since Rapture she has released five albums, so she’s not exactly prolific in the vein of peers like the late Luther Vandross, but what we have is certainly worth savoring. She has sold enough records and received enough industry attention (she has received eight Grammy Awards) that I don’t need to plead her case too strongly, she is clearly “great.”

 As a child of “the ‘80s” I find it amusing, and sometimes frightening, when songs I heard growing up are accorded “classic” status. Popular programs and films (i.e. Glee, Bridesmaids) have, for example, made the case for Journey and Wilson Philips as “classic” groups among younger listeners. This amuses me because, subjectively speaking, most of their output is obviously cheesy, but more importantly it’s hard to look at the music you grew up with critical distance. I think we need to listen harder to distinguish nostalgia from the elusive notion of quality. The songs I heard growing up may strike a chord and take me back toa specific place when I hear them on the radio initially, but closer listening, like closer reading, always reveals more. 

 As a writer I struggle constantly to reconcile my general disdain for canons with my love of lists.   Learning began as a casual writing project and as it grew into focus I realized the collection was my attempt to recognize notable singers:  “neo-classics” I would nominate for the vocal pantheon. These are all vocalists who have recorded from the rock era through the present who have contributed to popular singing in a discernible fashion. My only caveat in selecting singers is that I rarely discuss singers whose careers are less than 15 years old since it takes time to really develop an identity and build an audience.

 Since one volume can only contain so much have I have tried to practice some self-discipline and restrict the list to acts I believe are most overlooked or address aspects of performers’ careers commonly overlooked. For example, most people know the biggest hits from Gladys Knight & the Pips but may be far less aware of her multi-faceted solo recordings which transcend the generic R&B/soul tag typically applied to her style. Still, no matter what I choose to address in the collection, there are always more voices worth hearing than can ever be contained. In the book’s introduction I cite Wanda Jackson and Ella Mae Morse as classic performers warranting more critical attention and the promise of more recent singers such as Jennifer Hudson, Eileen Jewell, Sam Smith, and jazz singers like Dena DeRose, Jackie Ryan, and Cecile McLorin Salvant. Below are ruminations on some “neo-classic” singers who made an impact in the 1970-1990s, and select moments that triggered my interest, and may trigger yours. Perhaps they will figure in the next volume?

 Paul Buchanan (lead singer of the Blue Nile)

Paul Buchanan photo Copyright © 2012 Richard Campbell for The Guardian.

Paul Buchanan photo Copyright © 2012 Richard Campbell for The Guardian.

 The Blue Nile is a Scottish group originating for the mid-1980s that has only released four albums in 30 years. Their 1989 song “Downtown Lights” was covered faithfully by Annie Lennox on her 1995 cover album Medusa and the ballad “Let’s Go Out Tonight” has been sung by multiple interpreters including jazz singers Cheryl Bentyne and Curtis Stigers. They specialize in seven-nine song suites of “dream pop” ballads bathed in shimmering keyboards, a sound perfected on 1989’s Hats. Buchanan has a vulnerable crooning sound well suited to the group’s long-ish (5-7 minutes) meditative ballads. He is a masterful singer who hovers in a middle range teetering somewhere between hope and despair. After listening to the Blue Nile you inevitably want to hear more. Alas, they broke up and Buchanan and recorded the 2012 solo album Mid Air (Newsroom Records).

 Shemekia Copeland

 The rocking blues style Etta James, Koko Taylor, and Tina Turner pioneered in the ‘60s has certainly shaped the music of Shemekia Copland. Daughter of the late blues man Johnny Copeland, she has released seven albums since her 1998 debut and is arguably the finest blues singer of her generation. I saw her perform live in the early 2000s in Virginia and though she is modest in height I was rocked by her thundering vocal power and conviction especially on her original tune “Ghetto Child.” She has only grown with each record. Copeland is a blues rocker stylistically, but she is also a great seeker of songs with a wide range. She has found rich material for interpretation from the blues repertoire, including songs by her father, Albert King, Percy Mayfield, etc, post-60s singer songwriters (i.e. Dylan, Mitchell) and more recent socially conscious material. She also has a great ear for story songs about quirky characters and the happenings occurring in local highly specific scenes. You may think you know what “the blues” sounds like but she is one of its best modernizers.

Shemekia Copeland photo. Copyright © Joseph Rosen. Courtesy of

Shemekia Copeland photo. Copyright © Joseph Rosen. Courtesy of

 If I were to compile a playlist of some of my favorite performances they would include the following: the title track of her debut (1998’s Turn the Heat Up); her character sketch on “Miss Hy Ciditty” and her hilarious lowdown duet with Ruth Brown on “If He Moves His Lips” (2000’s Wicked); “Sholanda’s” about women gathering at the local hairdresser (2002’s Talking to Strangers); the appropriately inquisitive ass-kicking “Who Stole My Radio?” (2005’s The Soul Truth); the entirety of 2009’s Never Going Back highlighted by her wistful version of Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow,” amoving rendition of Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation,” “Never Going Back to Memphis” and the moral themes of “Sounds like the Devil,” “Broken World,” and “Sounds Like the Devil”; her take on Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” her triumphant version of the blues standard “I Sing the Blues” and the social consciousness exhibited on the anti-abuse anthem “Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” and the class warfare on “Lemon Pie” (2013’s 33 1/3); the revenge story on “Crossbone Beach”  and the plea “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy.”

 Terence Trent D’Arby

 Before the neo-soul singers like D’Angelo and Maxwell reached back into R&B’s past in the mid-1990s D’Arby had already looked back and recorded several masterpieces. Possessing a voice with the uncanny synthesis of James Brown’s funkiness, Sam Cooke’s grit, Smoky Robinson’s delicacy, and Otis Redding’s fervor, D’Arby was a fresh voice when he debuted on 1987’s Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. Arriving when he did, at a time when dance pop and New Jack defined black pop, his sound was refreshingly organic and adult. D’Arby wrote, produced, and arranged his material and really stood apart. He was funky (“If You Let Me Stay”), sensual (“Sign Your Name”), buoyant (“Wishing Well”), and respectful of his elders (his fine version of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You”). He was also attractive and a decent performer. He won an R&B Grammy, had four radio hits, including “Wishing” which hit #1, and was the most promising new male voice in soul since Luther Vandross.


Terence Trent D'Arby photo. Copyright ©

Terence Trent D'Arby photo. Copyright ©

His only flaw? D’Arby was pompous, arrogant, and off-putting in his public statements insulting Dylan and The Beatles, and coming across as blowhard. This didn’t hurt his debut album sales wise, but probably didn’t help his second 1989’s Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh which was so ambitious it was bound to be a harder sale. As the title indicates this is an amped up version of his soul inclinations featuring some lovely ballads (“To Know Someone Deeply is To Know Someone Softly”) alongside some great soul workouts, especially the James Brown-esque “Roly Poly” and the gospel inspired “I Don’t Want to Bring Your Gods Down.” Though it is a satisfying, often engrossing album, with the makings of a masterpiece, many thought it was pretentious. None of its songs made an impact at radio stations and the album peaked at 61. Four years later he re-emerged with the masterpiece Terence Trent D’Arby’s Symphony or Damn which continued to display his dazzling command of genres and textures. His debut with Des’ree (“Delicate”) is sublimely hypnotic; “Do You Love Me Like you Say?” is as funky as anything Prince has ever done; and there are a ton of oddball songs like the hilarious teenage sex plea “Penelope Please” (despite his pretenses he has a sense of humor) and the country ballad “I Still Love You.”  Critics responded very positively but his audience had turned to hip-hop soul, modern rock, and hip-hop. 1995’s Vibrator was a less engaging attempt at eclecticism and something of a mess; his major label career ended and he was forgotten. Which is a shame because he remains a formidable talent. In 2003 he released Terence Trent D’Arby’s Wildcard! on his own label Sananda Records (so named for his new namesake Sananda Maitreya) and it is a 19 song eclectic masterpiece of originals as good as anything on the radio circa 2003. Despite his brief time in the commercial limelight artistically D’Arby was ahead of his time and then slightly out-of-sync.  

 Lila Downs


Lila Downs photo. Copyright ©

Lila Downs photo. Copyright ©

I first heard the Oaxacan born singer of Mixtec and British-American heritage singing live at Virginia’s famous venue The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna. Her power, presence and poise as a vocalist and performer were a real master class in owning the stage. Her patter was humorous, informed and warmly delivered, and as a performer she was in total command vocally and physically. Downs is a progressive singer who has modernized traditional Mexican forms, including rancheras, mariachis, and son jarocho as well as Latin diasporic forms like flamenco and Cumbia by interpreting them in hip arrangements with a contemporary sensibility, often informed by politics. Downs studied music formally and is something of a folklorist in her approach to repertoire. From the beginning of her recording career (circa 1994) she has explored her own cultural identity through her music including commenting on colonization and immigration issues. Vocally, she brings an operatic bel canto sensibility to her interpretations. Her famous clever version of “La Cucaracha” (a song I played on a vibraphone as a sixth grader!) is a revelation. La Cantina (2006), Shake Away (2008), and Pecados y Milagros (2011) are excellent introductions to her vibrant, eclectic style.

 Dobie Gray




Gray is not a household name but pop music fans of multiple generations are usually familiar with two of post-60s pop’s greatest songs 1965’s “The ‘In’ Crowd” and 1973’s “Drift Away.” Though one is a buoyant tune with a classic ‘60s beat and the other is a transcendent anthem about the power of music they only hint at Gray’s range. His biography is a bit murky in a few of its details, but the important thing is that this singer (and occasional actor) reached his peak in the 1970s when he perfected a kind of country-soul sound exemplified by “Drift Away” as well as lesser known but equally perfect performances on “Loving Arms” and “So High (Rock Me Baby and Roll Me Away).”  On his three MCA LPs 1973’s Drift Away, 1974’s Loving Arms, and 1974’s Hey Dixie he and producer/songwriter Mentor Williams perfect a rich hybrid of soul, pop, and country that is musically satisfying but was difficult to market commercially. Genres are so racially codified that it’s rare for artists to gain full acceptance in new markets. Though his warm, soulful sound is couched in sparkling lush arrangements his albums were never big sellers.

 Regardless the import record label BGO packed these together in 2015 on CD and they are a great glimpse of his artistry.  Three albums does not a great career make, and Gray struggled to stay afloat as a recording artist. He made several obscure albums in the late 70s, a glossy country album in the mid-1980s and re-recorded his biggest hits on several independently released collections. The best overview of his career is The Ultimate Dobie Gray (2001, Hip-O Records). Hardcore fans may also enjoy the box set A Decade of Dobie covering his 1969-79 recordings.

 Alison Moyet




Before Adele, Duffy, and the late Amy Winehouse, British powerhouse Moyet was the standard bearer for British soul singing.  Inspired by Etta James and Dusty Springfield she possesses an unmistakable husky, smoky quality put to great use in the ‘80s as lead singer of the synth-and- soul band Yaz and as a solo singer. Moyet and musical partner Vince Clarke (who formed Erasure with Andy Bell) only made two albums as Yaz but they yielded such classics of yearning as “Don’t Go,” “Situation,” and “Only You” which are as thrilling today as they were in the early ‘80s. Moyet went solo and explored a range of styles that maximized her instrumental prowess. Highlights include the wrenching top 40 hit “Invisible,” and fan favorites like the raucous “It Won’t Be Long” and the similarly incendiary “Whispering Your Name.” The 1995 Singles (Columbia Records) album distills these hits alongside her luscious takes on the jazz standards “That Ole Devil Called Love” and “Love Letters.” Two great album length sets showcase Moyet most fully. The first, 1991’s Hoodoo is a rock and blues-inflected minor masterpiece, featuring brilliant pop-soul. The second is 2004’s Voice a beautiful standards album arranged by Ann Dudley. Moyet displays remarkable insight on a variety of classics most notably on post-60s tunes like “The Windmills of Your Mind,” “God Give Me Strength” and “Almost Blue.” She also tackles some more traditional fare including “The Man I Love” and even “The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies-O!” Moyet continues to record and perform.

 Stuart Staples (lead singer of the Tindersticks)


Tindersticks photo. Source:

Tindersticks photo. Source:

The music of English band The Tindersticks came into my life circa 2008-09 through a friend who introduced me to their 2008 album The Hungry Saw. The band actually began in 1991 and has had a series of personnel changes and hiatuses though they remain together. Though they’ve never had a U.S. hit calling them an “indie” group is inaccurate because their style is an amalgam of genres including rock, soul, chamber pop, and…sounds not easily classifiable. Staples has a warm baritone and a soulful phrasing style bathed in a delightful feast of textures including organs, strings, and various percussion and wind instruments on this album. Among the album’s many highlights is the poignant, hypnotic ballad “All the Love” about the ways violence infects individuals and circulates in societies.  The first time I heard it I cried. 

 Tanya Tucker

 Though she is best known as a preternaturally gifted teen singer of ‘70s Southern gothic tunes like “Delta Dawn” and “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)” Tucker’s career extends into the present. Tucker was in the country mainstream from the early 1970-early 1980s, and soldiered on well into the 1990s even writing an autobiography and having her own reality show. My primary case for her gifts are the 1986 album Girls Like Me released after years of tabloid coverage and a commercial dry spell. On this loose concept set she sings about lust (“Daddy Long Legs”), promiscuity (“One Love at a Time”), revenge (“I’ll Come Back as Another Woman”) and genuine heartache (the title track). She can take a simple song like the waltz “Fool, Fool Heart” or Kim Carnes’s lament “Still Hold On” and personalize it. The result is an electrifying experience that transcends the “country” box. What impresses me most here is her timbral and emotional range. Tucker is a master of color—she can summon her voice to do just about anything and her approach almost disarmingly direct in emotion. Tucker has mostly released live albums on small labels over the last few years, but her gifts are intact on the 2009 studio set My Turn where she sings country classics popularized by male singers. A fuller view of her career is available on the imported double-disc The Upper 48 Hits 1972-1997 (Raven).





2015’s Raves & Faves

Taylor Swift probably sold the most records this year, an entity named The Weekend apparently wrote and produced many of the bigger hits, and Kendrick Lamar made a lot of people hear hip-hop differently. Still, 2015 continues the ongoing diffuseness of pop music. No one singer or song or genre really defines the age. Further, no central medium (i.e. TV, Youtube, radio) speaks to the needs of all or most. It’s a buffet where we pick and choose what appeals to us and hope for some nourishment.

 As the year winds down November is a great time to reflect on the music that stood out as well as books and films worth adding to your collection. 2015’s Riffs, Beats & Codas Raves & Faves:

 Best BIG POP song of the year: “Uptown Funk” Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars

 The biggest radio hit/pop song of the year is also the best. On this Morris Day& The Time/Prince inspired slice of mid-1980s style funk Mars, one of contemporary pop’s greatest pastiche artists, struts his stuff. As a vocalist and performer Mars and his entourage of performing singers (singing performers?) bring out all the song’s colors in full force delivering some of the more dynamic TV performances in ages via a Westside Story-ish strut + call-and-response interplay. 


Most Notable music on film:

Documentary film: Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia)

 Amy, a documentary about Amy Winehouse’s career rise and descent into addiction and ultimately death, is as much about the voraciousness of celebrity as it is about the musician.  In the film success amplifies Winehouse’s vulnerabilities to addiction, and breeds a willful callousness and indifference among many in her entourage toward her wellness.


Narrative film: Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad)

 Love & Mercy (starring Paula Dano and John Cusack) upturns the traditional static rags-to-riches biopic by bringing viewers into some of the touchstones of Brian Wilson’s life including sketches of his compositional prowess, his gentle rapport with musicians, especially in the studio, and his complex relationships with his family. By showing you Wilson as a young man in his creative prime, and as an older, more confused man seeking to balance creativity with the need for stability as he pulls through debilitating co-dependence, the film brings you closer to understanding the whole man with refreshing efficiency.


 Most Notable new books on music:

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking) by John Szwed

 Szwed’s book is one of the more incisive and original takes on Holiday’s storied life and influential career. He probes beneath the surface of established myths about her life to reveal new layers. Further, by focusing primarily on the impressive range of musical innovations she pioneered, including her sophisticated rhythmic prowess and advanced melodic embellishments, he provides a fresh take on a legendary figure.

 Who should sing Ol’ Man River? The Lives of an American Song (Oxford University Press) by Todd Decker

 Cultural appropriation remains a vital issue and Decker raises compelling questions about the oft-recorded standard “Ol’ Man River” sung most famously by Paula Robeson in Showboat. After exploring the song’s origins, he analyzes the different approaches vocalists and musicians have employed in their interpretations of the song across genres and era. In doing so he unpacks the complex evolution of racial attitudes embedded in popular culture over the 20th century.

 Most Listenable Album: Pageant Material (Kacey Musgraves; Mercury Nashville)

Country musician Kacey Musgraves has one of the clearest and boldest voices in popular music. Proving her debut Same Trailer, Different Park was no fluke she has made a funny, poignant, and well-observed album premised on the virtues of integrity and authenticity.  Musgrave is a warm, appealing personality whose album has a near perfect balance of melodic and textural variety, smart wordplay, and rhythmic range.


Best Party Album: Dee Dee’s Feathers (Dee Bridgewater, Irwin Mayfield & the New Orleans Orchestra; Okeh Records).

 Dee Dee’s Feathers teams jazz’s finest vocal improviser with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Bridgewater and company take on the classic New Orleans repertoire including Louis Armstrong classics like “Do You Know What it Means to Miss new Orleans” and “What a Wonderful World,” as well as a highly personalized, stretched out “St. James Infirmary” with a full complement of brass, and a “New Orleans” featuring an extended vocal plunger solo from the singer.   Her duet with Dr. John on “Big Chief,” the “Treme/Whatcha Gonna Do” medley, and the throbbing “Congo Square” are especially fun, uniquely New Orleans performances that make full use of the band. There are also interesting detours including Bridgewater’s take on Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the charming original title track. At turns wistful but mostly jubilant she and the Orchestra are playing at full blossom making it the most festive vocal jazz record of the year.


Less-is-More Awards: Just You Just Me (Karen Marguth; CD Baby); The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Tony Bennett and Bill Charlap; Columbia Records)

 Voice + Piano: After his cycle of rather gimmicky duet sets Bennett finally released a solo album with The Silver Lining where he and jazz pianist Bill Charlap, and on some tracks a trio, record some of the signatures from Kern’s formidable songbook. Bennett is at his best navigating the tricky melodies, complex harmonies, and unusual modulations of songs like “All the Things you Are,” and capturing the essence lighter fare like “I Won’t Dance” and the wistful “Yesterdays.” His vocal flexibility and interpretive focus yield some of his strongest, most jazz-oriented performances ever.


Voice + Bass: On Just You Just Me vocalist Karen Marguth and bassist Kevin Hill build from the promise of previous efforts and tackle classics like “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” “I Got it Bad,”  and “Imagination” perfectly capturing their melodic and rhythmic contours, and emotional essence in the sparsest of settings. She makes her greatest impact on her scat-laden rendition of the title track, a surprisingly blues-y and quite humorous rapid fire “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Taught Me,”  and fresh songs like her loping version of Phoebe Snow’s “Harpo’s Blues” and the charming Johnny Mercer tune “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood.” Other inspired choices include takes on Nellie Lutcher and Rickie Lee Jones. Marguth is quite assured in a variety of modes, and she and Hill have faultless chemistry. 


Most Memorable concerts:

Angelique Kidjo (May 15, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): She sings, she dances, she inspires, she soars: the ageless Kidjo, an eclectic writer and performer originally from Benin, can galvanize a whole room with her energy and simultaneously make everyone in her audience feel welcome and loved. Kidjo and her band, with whom she has delicious chemistry, delivered an eclectic multi-lingual program of riveting pop music.

 Gregory Porter (February 20, 2015 @ the Weis Center for the Performing Arts, Lewisburg, PA): Porter is the most exciting male singer in vocal jazz. He is one with his instrument which he uses with astonishing force and finesse. Running through his relatively small but deeply personal repertoire he stuns on his rendition of Oscar Brown’s “Work Song” and brings you deeply into his soul on personal anthems like “Painted on Canvas” and “Musical Genocide.”

 Best live TV performances:

Alabama Shakes “Don’t Wanna Fight,” on Saturday Night Live (3/1/15): 

 Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars, “Uptown Funk,” on Saturday Night Live (11/23/14):


BEYOND MUSIC media favorites:

 Essay collection: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)

 Coates blends an epistolary format with autobiography to address his teenaged son. Coates details an American pathology that consistently renders black bodies vulnerable to exploitation and violence ranging from 17th century enslavement to current struggles against police brutality. Boldly defying our predilection for optimistic endings, especially regarding cultural divides, his outlook is jaded, cautious, and bracing.


Film: 99 Homes (directed by Ramin Bahrani)

 In this narrative films set in Orlando circa 2010 construction worker Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) and his family are evicted from their home and the real estate vulture who savors this moment is Rick Carver (played with delicious contempt by Michael Hannon), a hard boiled, unsentimental agent who uses the mortgage crisis to his advantage, acquiring properties from evictees and exploiting abandoned properties for wealth. The desperate and jobless Dennis ends up working for Carver making quick cash through performing various duties but questioning the moral price of his newfound fortune. Bahrani’s story balances the topical with the philosophical depicting the roots of the mortgage crisis and the perverse range of moral pathways crises engender in even the best of men.


Memoir: Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson (Pantheon)

 Jefferson delves into her personal history growing up in an upper middle class family in Chicago in the late 1940s to illuminate larger questions that haunt the black elite. While tacitly acknowledging the hard work and good fortune of many enterprising African-Americans Negroland frequently asks readers to consider how colorism and classism shaped the ascent of many blacks who gained some modicum social acceptance, and depicts the emotional toll the pressure for respectability has had on the mental wellness and self-esteem of generations.  

 Novel(s): Loving Day by Mat Johnson (Spiegel & Grau); The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux)

 In these hilarious, searing, and clever satires Beatty and Johnson create fictional worlds whose inventive humor is based in poignant realities about navigations of racial identity in the U.S. Johnson’s depiction of a half Irish-half African American man returning home to Philly to a rundown mansion purchased by his late father and discovering a daughter he never knew in Philadelphia is a fertile playground laced with characters and scenarios that raise lingering questions about the construction of race and the perils and pitfalls of racial authenticity. Beatty’s depiction of a fictional all-black community in L.A. is narrated by a young man raised by a radical intellectual, killed by police, who proposes a radical idea to bring back segregation. Beneath Beatty’s brilliant wordplay and often absurdist scenes lie some illuminating truths about embodiments of race in 21st century U.S. life.  



2015 R.I.Ps


AT songbook.jpg

Ornette Coleman (jazz musician)

Andrae Crouch (gospel musician)

Lesley Gore (pop musician)

B.B. King (blues musician)

Ben E. King (R&B musician)

Mary Murphy (jazz singer)

Percy Sledge (R&B musician)

Clark Terry (jazz musician)

Allen Toussaint (pop/rock/R&B musician)




“My” music and theirs: On the last 38 years of pop music from a (nearly) 39 year old

When I was born almost 39 years ago in late October the most popular song in the U.S was either the (grating) novelty song “Disco Duck” or the band Chicago’s pretty (if schmaltzy) ballad “If You Leave Me Now.”  

                                                                    2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

                                                                    2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

Music has moved on from these styles, mercifully, but all movement is not progress. I’m not old enough to be a surly old codger who hates all the “new music.” But it’s hard to resist a notion my (slightly older) friend suggested years ago that at a certain point a gap emerges between what one might call “my music” and the pop music that sells contemporarily (“their” music). The soundscape of today differs significantly and on the dawn of my 39th I’m attempting to survey the music industry over the last four decades.

 Both 1976 hits “Disco Duck” and “If You Leave Me Now” have commercial antecedents. Disco’s most notable stylistic prototypes were songs that emerged from Philly, Miami and other urban centers several years prior to its parody of the genre. Chicago’s initial jazz and rock style, which emerged alongside a similar but harder hitting sound from Blood Sweat and Tears circa 1969, gave way to a lusher, softer sound pioneered by The Carpenters and Bread in 1970. The ’76 hits were essentially retreads. 

 Shortly after these hits both disco and what became the “adult contemporary” music style soared commercially. Mainstream (or “classic”) rock also swelled to great heights with epic sellers from bands like Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd. The ‘70s ended with an almost mythical pole between groove driven music largely derived from funk and R&B, and a static guitar driven meat and potatoes kind of rock that didn’t exactly encourage dancing.

  Despite what those cheesy TV boxed sets suggest there was no core “‘80s sound.” “867-5309/Jenny” was a catchy but minor song not the anthem of the zeitgeist. There was a “big tent” feel to mainstream pop that made room for Barbra Streisand, The Cars, Anita Baker, Duran Duran, Kenny Rogers, Bruce Springsteen, Pet Shop Boys, Run DMC, Phil Collins, Bobby Brown, and U2, none of whom will ever be mistaken for the other. Music video, the consolidation of media companies, the growth of soundtracks, and various economic indicators (greed, corporate welfare) structured some of these changes, as did technological innovations like the cassette tape, the walkman, and the CD.

 In the 1990s hip-hop and post-punk grew more prominent. Despite the stock interpretations from music critics about a subversive takeover of pop by “edgy” youth adult contemporary music and country were actually the dominant radio formats of the decade. A wave of teen pop emerged in the mid-1990s-early 2000s, as did the option to access music digitally. No dominant characteristic really defines today’s pop music. Though performers like Beyoncé, Rhianna, Justin Timberlake and Kanye West generate a lot of attention, for typically banal reasons, the audiences who purchase their music are smaller and less diverse (especially in age) than the most popular music released just 10-15 years ago.

 When I think about music of my time two themes emerge:

 Theme 1: Music originating in Black cultural spaces still shapes the pop mainstream but it is growing narrower and less complex. Blues and gospel are distinctly American musical forms traceable to African-Americans. Jazz, a blend of blues and gospel elements with a European tonal and harmonic system, is not purely black or West African derived music but would be impossible without black American culture. All three genres defined key aesthetic aspects of the jazz age and swing eras, as well as jump blues (think Louis Jordan) which morphed into R&B/soul, which when blended together with country, folk, and other elements became rock ‘n’ roll. Twentieth century pop music is typically divided into pre-rock and rock eras. Another way to look at it is that jazz-influenced pop defined pop until R&B redefined pop. R&B is not as musically complex as swing jazz and bebop but soul, funk and other variations of what is essentially secular gospel has proven itself to be more enduring, adaptable, and difficult to do well than a lot of music snobs would ever admit. Ray Charles, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Prince are bonafide R&B musicians you can’t dismiss.

 In the ‘70s urban music formed the roots of disco and hip-hop. Disco’s mechanized nature and the scavenger like nature of hip-hop, which relies on a collage of samples and technical wizardry, normalized mechanized elements in mainstream pop music production. They also made dance music disproportionately central to modern black music. Aside from what critic Nelson George termed the “retro-nuevo” sound of sophisticates like Luther Vandross and Anita Baker the primary black styles to emerge in the ‘80s were rap and New Jack music both youthful dance-driven musics. In the ‘90s mainstream rap grew coarser, which coincided with increases in its commercial appeal, and New Jack morphed into hip-hop soul. Hip-hop soul inspired a plethora of would be Mary J. Bliges. Neo-soul provided some relief, but for every original like Jill Scott, there are multiple singers trying to doggedly relive the sounds of ‘70s R&B Wurlitzers and all.  

 The more popular black singers of today, such as Usher and Beyoncé, are not much of an advance on their predecessors, but rather distillations whose singing is as dependent on performance and image, and is nominally part of a black tradition but frankly inseparable from the slickness typically associated with pop. Is Usher any more “soulful” (i.e. truthful, vulnerable, and gospel-derived) than Justin Bieber or Robin Thicke? Or do we convince ourselves of this to maintain a cultural illusion. In essence black music has lost much of its meaning and distinction as a form and has descended into more of a brand marker than a cultural signifier.

 I was never much of a hip-hop fan; even as a child I generally found it too macho and crude, and unromantic for my liking. Some, hip-hop performers like LL Cool J, Run DMC, Missy Misdemeanors” “Elliott and Outkast have made genuinely interesting music (including listenable albums) but the genre is very singles dependent and trend driven. It’s not a leap to say that however influential it has been in record production techniques, clothing, and slang, few of its acts have aged well and much of it is as ephemeral as ‘50s novelty songs.  Acts increasingly rise and fall based on the commercial cachet of the producers, dance trends, and other elements tangentially related to music. The genre is always chasing its own tail; it’s a dizzying descent.


                                                                   2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

                                                                   2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

Theme 2: There is nothing resembling a consensus in new pop music; it is far too decentralized, borderline ageist and antisocial. I often share with people that my first rock concert occurred in 1985 when my family and I went to see the Victory Tour in Jacksonville, Florida featuring Michael Jackson and his brothers. As a child everyone listened to Michael Jackson, especially Thriller, including my parents. Though his desire to be all things to all people arguably stagnated and killed him, and perhaps there’s a milquetoast element to some of his music that made it accessible, the idea that my sibling and parents could share musical tastes seems almost absurd today.

 Pop music has a strong niche element. Part of me applauds this—there’s something for every taste. This may have always been true but now it seems more accessible and obvious.  What has been lost in this über fragmentation is the lack of artists who transcends clear boundaries, especially age. Though I’m supposedly part of Generation X and the “hip-hop generation” the musical markers that supposedly define my generation never fit. It was not until the very late ‘80s that the music dominating radio listened to began to feel increasingly foreign and alienating to my parents, who were born in the 1940s.

 Some of this may signify the inevitable generation gap but I think it runs deeper. A lot of people who hated rock made peace with Bob Dylan and The Beatles eventually. I have a hard time imagining these folks (or younger versions of them) embracing Ludacris or Eminem or Lil’ Kim. A dividing line between adult and youth taste seems to expand yearly. Radio stations have shown increasingly little regard for ballads or songs with traditional music values like strong melodicism and romantic lyrics. In their place are a lot of danceable, hook driven ditties sung anonymously. No wonder radio stations embraced Adele so feverishly a few years ago. She was so different from the mainstream in the mere fact that she is a competent singer and sings songs with strong melodies, a modicum of harmony, and palpably human lyric content allows her to stand apart.        

 The places where this fragmentation is most felt is in the perpetual obscurity of jazz and classical music. I’m far more of a jazz listener so that’s where I turn my attention. If you want to know where people of a “certain age” hang out go to a jazz concert!  For generations everyone knew who Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were even if they were unfamiliar with their music (imagine!). Today leading lights of jazz like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Kurt Elling, and even younger singers like Gregory Porter and Cecile McLorin Salvant are both gifted singers and highly entertaining performers. But they might as well abandon popular song for the most obscure and inaccessible music they can find. Jazz, which has always relied on melodic and harmonically rich material written for popular audiences, is essentially an art music comprising 1-2% of purchased music. Contemporary jazz musicians struggle to compete with the past; reissues of Miles Davis and John Coltrane probably outsell anything a new jazz musician has released this year.

 My point here is not simply to scold but to illustrate the gap between music aimed at young and old, and the gap between what is deemed accessible and inaccessible. Jazz, which dominated popular music for so long, is just one of many barometers of change. The blues is not exactly on fire commercially either. In the late ‘80s Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949), who had been recording for nearly 20 years when she scored a hit album and won three Grammies Nick of Time was recording for Capitol Records.  She recorded her most recent album, Slipstream after a seven year recording hiatus, on an independent label because she grew tired of the record industry. Singers of her generation mostly record for independent labels if at all limiting access to radio and the exposure if affords artists. Aaron Neville (b. 1941) had his greatest commercial success in the 1990s at A&M Records. In the last decade he has recorded albums for Verve, EMI Gospel, Burgundy Records, and Blue Note. He lacks the visibility he had then, but at least he has been able to secure recording contracts. Many singers of his generation are not so fortunate.

 When was the last time you heard new songs from people who were popular in the 1990s like Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, or Celine Dion? All three still record for major record labels but lack mainstream radio presence. Blige’s (born 1971) last top 40 hit peaked at #32 in 2013 and her most recent album The London Sessions peaked at #9 in December 2014 and lasted on the chart for a short time before disappearing; there were no hit singles. Ageism has wedged gaps between generations of listeners and relegated older artists to assume the independent route and/or hunt for proper recording and promotion support. How long before these singers, all of whom are under 50 are too old to be commercially viable? Usher is 36 and Beyoncé is 34. They might want to look over their shoulders. 


                                                                  2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

                                                                  2009 rendering of Vincent L. Stephens by Brook Sloan.

 My dream music scenario does not necessarily involve me sitting with my parents but the idea of music as a form of social glue is increasingly antiquated. If I discuss music with my parents, or even people younger than them it’s usually music made between the 1950s-1990s. There are so many sub-genres and niches that it’s difficult to find a sense of social belonging in music. Even the much hyped populist accessibility of alternative rock and hip-hop is illusory. The regional and city specificity of hip-hop necessitates access to certain channels to engage with its language and references, otherwise listeners gloss over them and focus on the beat. While I appreciate the pleasure of mystery and discovery the issue here is about a shift in values from relative accessibility and populism to an almost perverse dare to listeners: Are you cool enough, hip enough, “down” enough to even know what we’re saying? For most people the answer is probably no, but who cares when the songs are so catchy?   

 I want to be excited about “new” music and can attest to the thrill of listening to recent music from a variety of country (Kacey Musgraves), jazz (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Karen Marguth, Tony Bennett), and pop (Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk”)  performers.  My fear is that this list will become smaller and these pleasures may have to be spaced out as the pool diminishes. That would make pop music feel like something foreign and irrelevant, and engender a sense of cultural isolation within me. I can always look back into the past and explore the catalogs of familiar artists and discover new artists. The digital era has been a boon for exposing me to unfamiliar singers, ranging from the Dutch jazz singer Rita Reys to Malian singer and actress Rokia Troaré.  But the process of discovering new music and sharing it is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I still want at least some of “my music” to emanate from a shared cultural well. I look forward to checking back in at 40.



What I saw this summer: Music at the movies

One of the more transcendent moments of this past summer was Meryl Streep’s rendition of Dobie Gray’s 1973 classic “Drift Away” in the film Ricki and the Flash. Though the movie, a story about an aging musician who reconnects with her children, is muddled and incomplete, there is a startling clarity about the power of music in the scene. The deliberate pacing, the soulful crevices of her voice, and the communal feeling among the dive bar’s spirited working class patrons resonated strongly. After the movie I went home and made a playlist of songs celebrating music ranging from “Drift Away” to the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” to standards like “I Hear Music” and “Without a Song.”

 Depicting music’s impact and the music making process is a difficult feat for most films to capture. Film is a filter that can stifle the crackling energy and insinuating vibration of live music. This barrier is why so many musical biopics are emotionally unsatisfying.  Hearing actors’ overdubbed voices while they lip sync or mimic playing an instrument, and play to the camera is so staged it usually feels perfunctory. Several recent films including the documentaries What Happened Miss Simone and Amy, and the narrative film on Beach Boy Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy stood out for me recently. A similar and slightly older film I viewed recently, All Is By Side, a 2013 film about Jimi Hendrix, also enchanted me. Each film succeeds in letting viewers into whom these musicians were and how they experienced the world.

 A few notes on what I saw:

 Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad) vacillates from portraits of Wilson circa 1967, during the recording of what eventually became Pet Sounds, and his vulnerable status in the late 1980s as a near hostage of therapist Eugene Landry who had guardianship over the depressed, vulnerable singer-songwriter. Though much of Wilson’s story is well-known and well-documented (i.e. The 1995 Wilson documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times) the film’s most compelling scenes focus on music making. In addition to snippets of Wilson (whose genuine whimsy and bubbling artistic frustrations are captured by Paul Dano’s nuanced performance) singing at the piano, the movie shows him working through arrangements in the recording studio with the “Wrecking Crew” (also the subject of the 2008 documentary of the same name) a group of highly gifted session musicians who played on countless pop records in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

 The scenes depict Wilson’s layered, neo-symphonic approach to harmony as a product of countless hours working with the musicians to create complex backings that would later be complemented by dense vocal harmonies. Central to the film’s dramatic tension is the conflict between Wilson, who is chasing the sonic innovations of the Beatles’s seminal Sgt. Pepper, and Wilson’s notoriously unsupportive father Murry as well as Beach Boy Mike Love who want the group to continue recording sun-drenched surf music. The struggle of an aging, controlled Wilson to lead a functional, autonomous life under Landry’s domineering “therapy” (with ace performances by John Cusack as Wilson, Elizabeth Banks as his wife Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti as Landry) comprises half the film.

 But, I was most taken by the film’s ongoing portraits of the often laborious but frequently rewarding and surprising process of recording. Several scenes showcase little moments where Wilson hears a small variation by a musician that opens him up to textures beyond his initial compositional and sonic visions. Though the Beach Boys’ records are meticulously produced, the film illustrates how “live” recording and spontaneous moments transformed Wilson’s music.


I saw What Happened, Miss Simone?  (directed by Liz Arbus) in Netflix shortly after the Brian Wilson film; both were tortured geniuses for disparate reasons. The title immediately suggests something went awry; in a sense it did as the film documents Simone’s struggles with racism, an abusive marriage, her commitment to civil rights and liberationist politics in her music and the subsequent backlash, as well as mental illness. Like the artist the film is overflowing with eclecticism spanning from her childhood musical intrigue with the piano to her commercial triumphs, personal struggles, and comeback in the late 1980s through her death.

 Simone is widely understood as an influence on many contemporary singers including jazz vocalists like Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson, and experimental R&B musician Me’shell N’degeocello who recorded an excellent Simone tribute in 2013 with guest vocalists. Simone’s repertoire of signature songs is also vast including definitive renditions of “Love Me or Leave Me,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” and notable originals like “Four Women,” and “Mississippi Goddamn.”

 Yet, she always seems underrated and misunderstood to me. Simone is a difficult artist to “capture” because her career was so varied. 1959-1972 is her most notable period as a recording artist, a period characterized by significant social transition and the movement away from jazz-inspired pop as mainstream music toward a greater rock and R&B influence in popular music. At the independent Bethlehem Records she recorded a jazz-oriented album featuring traditional standards sung in her inimitable, almost drone-like style. After the label folded she switched to Colpix Records (1959-63) where she sang everything from Yiddish folk songs to Duke Ellington to TV theme songs. This eclectic approach continued at Phillips Records (1964-67), the label where she recorded her strongest work ranging from “Mississippi” to “I Put a Spell on You” to Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” to the Baptist traditional “Take Me to the River.” Her final major label period was a characteristically diverse set of recordings for RCA from 1967-72 featuring Simone’s political signatures like “Backlash Blues” (a collaboration with Langston Hughes), “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free,” and “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” Her RCA stint also includes Simone-ized renditions of (then) contemporary fare like “The Look of Love,” “To Love Somebody,” and “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life” (from Hair).

 After this period her recordings became more sporadic as she struggled to manage her sense of political disenchantment with U.S. politics. She refused to pay taxes and made homes for herself abroad in Barbados, Britain, Liberia, Switzerland, The Netherlands, and France; she was beloved worldwide. During the mid-1970s she mostly lived apart from her husband/manager Andy Stroud and her daughter Lisa. As the film details, she also struggled with bipolar disorder, an important element of her life detailed episodically in Nadine Cohodas’s 2010 biography Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. She recorded a an assortment of random, mostly live recordings for independent labels before recording 1993’s A Single Woman for Elektra and focusing on touring up until her death in 2003.

 As a Simone fan I was ecstatic Simone finally received documentary treatment. So many of her songs are recycled on commercials and in film without her face that my hope is the film closes this gap. The most stunning element of the film is the live footage, characterized by her warm rapport with her audience. Simone did not suffer fools gladly and commanded a high level of respect. Beneath her stern façade lie a certain playfulness and humor she used to whip her audiences into a kind of adoring docility.  The film features some amazing rare footage; my favorite is a late 1950s/early 1960s clip featuring her languorous drone like approach to the standard “For All We Know” that feels like a profound meditation on mortality sung with enough melodic distortion and retardation of tempo to feel wholly original. Later scenes feature her performing in front of primarily black audiences in the late 1960s, including a performance in Amherst, affirming their humanity in her stage patter.  

 One of the film’s more interesting narrative threads is the morphing of her image. Simone aspired to make her living as a classical pianist but was unable to continue her classical training and played and sang to make a living. Her earliest recordings feature standards mostly, but in the mid-1960s social tumult inspired her to move from cocktail jazz and saloon music repertoire toward more topical material. This generated tensions between her and Stroud who wanted her to stick with more emotionally neutral commercial music. Her daughter Lisa is interviewed throughout and it’s amazing hearing her daughter describe her family’s place within an intimate circle of black activists, artists, and scholars of the time including close relationships with Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz’s family and luminaries like Langston Hughes. Interestingly in a televised interview (from the 1980s I believe) Simone essentially downplays the political music of her past noting the Civil Rights movement as a movement of the past rather than carrying the torch. This may shock people who only think of Simone in political terms. She always insisted she was an artist first and declined to fit into boxes.

 Viewers might also be shocked and disturbed, as I was, by the level of physical and emotional abuse Simone endured in her marriage. The film is strangely neutral and matter-of-fact about this fact of her life. Stroud is featured in a lengthy interview circa 2006 and he is not the least bit apologetic or regretful which only made him seem crueler and Simone more vulnerable.


Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia), a documentary of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse’s short-lived commercial and artistic glory in the mid-to-late 2000s, and her death at 27, is more horror film than traditional documentary. Almost entirely eschewing talking heads and the typical “Voice of God” narration it’s a remarkably candid film that lets the pictures and the music tell the story. The film begins with a clip of a teenaged Winehouse singing promisingly at a friend’s birthday party, delves into her family life, and shows her progression as she nurtures her talents and lands the opportunity to record her 2004 album Frank a pop album mixing originals with jazz covers. The clips of her playing guitar and recording her vocals for select songs on the album reveal a raw, but promising talent, and various interviews from the time show her endearingly candid, off-the-cuff humor. She also makes it clear that her original material all draws from her loved experience; a veiled reference to her boyfriend who inspires songs like “Stronger Than Me.”After her initial musical success she’s somewhat adrift and falls in with Blake Fielder-Civil a sybaritic bon vivant whom she idolizes, eventually to a fault, and marries.

 Their colorful relationship informs her 2007 breakthrough album Back to Black which spawned the hits “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.” Here again the film provides viewers with access to her recording and performing songs from the album, and you witness her communion with her music unfiltered. As Back gains critical attention and commercial momentum Winehouse the celebrity, appearing on red carpets and talk shows, is far less assured than Winehouse the musician and she succumbs to alcohol and drug abuse. As she descends into addiction, including stints in rehab, the film makes you root for her though you know the outcome. There are countless moments, such as when she seems to be physically and emotionally restoring herself in Saint Lucia, where you feel she’s close to surviving when everything gets disrupted. In this instance her father, who was characterized as emotionally distant during her childhood, seizes the moment turning her rehabilitation as a reality show opportunity.

 One bit of relief is footage of her recording “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett who admires her talent and encourages her. She flubs her version a few times but her eggs her on and they get a satisfying take. This is only temporary respite. By the end she struggles for privacy, surrounded by bodyguards, and constantly dodging media attention and passes abruptly. In the film music seems like the only thing that provides a sense of equilibrium and confidence for Winehouse; without it she seems confused and numbed by fame.


John Ridley, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of 12 Years a Slave, wrote and directed the independent film  Jimi: All Is by My Side. Though it was released in 2013 it slipped in and out of theaters quickly but is available for streaming. I was intrigued by how one might approach a musician like Hendrix who is sadly one of the infamous musicians to die at 27, a list that includes Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Winehouse. Of these individuals Hendrix is arguably the most innovative and influential as a musician, writer, and singer.

 Jimi is an intimate character study and a close-up portrait less concerned with hagiography than the way Hendrix floated between different worlds, soul and rock, the U.S. and the U.K., black culture and white culture, to generate something new to rock music. Andre 3000 (of the hip-hop group OutKast) embodies Hendrix deeply, capturing Hendrix’s ethereal personality from his laid-back posture to his slurred, almost mumbled style of speaking to his casual grin. His performance anchors the story which tracks Hendrix from singing and playing guitar as the ‘60s soul act Jimmy James and the Blue Flames to capturing the attention of British musician Chad Chandler (of The Animal) who ultimately helped him create the Jimi Hendrix Experience featuring bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, a combo that yielded hits like “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze” in the U.K. chart in 1967.  Ridley focuses specific attention on Hendrix’s casual, humble perspective on his innovative guitar, his appeal to women, and the admiration he inspired in fellow musicians. These are all well-executed but conventional.

 But when he delves into Hendrix’s navigation of race, Ridley, who is African-American, uncovers a subtext of tension that bubbles beneath the surface of the psychedelic haze. Three interesting scenes include the following: Hendrix calls his father collect from England to tell him he’s living in England making his living as a musician. They are clearly estranged; Jimmy’s enthusiasm is dampened by his father’s skepticism. Even when Hendrix asks his British female companion to confirm his location his father is dismissive. A discernible racial and generational shift plays out as his father, undoubtedly part of a generation seeking stability and respectability in the U.S. has limited context for understanding how his son, who discharged from the Army in 1961, was actually surviving on something as flaky as rock music, abroad no less.

 Another fascinating scene involves Hendrix walking proudly in a velvet war jacket with his British girlfriend when they are accosted by three men who disapprove of him wearing the jacket so casually. They assume it’s from a dead WWII veteran and accuse him of disrespecting a soldier’s memory, but clearly the scene is about their disapproval of the interracial relationship. Throughout the film Hendrix is surrounded by mostly white admirers and its one of the clearest reminders that he has a complex life offstage.

 The other scene that stuck out involved a black British nationalist (played with flair by British actor Adrian Lester) who berates Hendrix for playing apolitical music in a time of racial strife globally and domestically. He urges him to focus on music about the black experience aimed at black listeners. Hendrix rejects his politics as divisive and incompatible with the communality of his music. Ridley’s portrait places you inside Hendrix raising fresh questions about Hendrix’s navigation of his life offstage touching on race, desire, and family.


 Though each film differs in subject and approach each drew me closer to the musicians they depict, which is a genuine contrast to the redemption stories that suffocate most biopics. While I sense that each of these filmmakers respects and admires their subjects, it’s also equally clear they learned something richer about the musicians, something beyond the victim-hero cycle. Their success transmitting these discoveries elevates the films and adds a dimension to the musicians themselves. Even though Ricki and the Flash is a minor film I got lost in the rock ‘n’ roll in its best scene; the band hit all the right notes reminding me of the power of music to shine through the Hollywood clutter.