Up-And-Comer Myron Elkins Shines On Debut Album

Young singer-songwriter from Michigan small town sounds like an old soul who has seen and done it all

Welcome to my second full-album review of 2023. Not only is it music by another contemporary artist, but it’s also brand new – a promising start of the year, which makes me very happy!

When I first came across Myron Elkins last Friday while doing research for my most recent Best of What’s New installment, I simply couldn’t believe I was listening to a 21-year-old artist. Based on his sound and especially his gritty vocals, you could picture this young singer-songwriter from Otsego, Mich. jam with the likes of The Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top and Tom Petty back in the ’70s!

Photo: Jimmy Fontaine via Sacks & Co

Before getting to some music from Elkins’ debut album Factories, Farms & Amphetamines, released on January 13, I’d like to touch on his background story. According to his website, while being exposed to music as a kid, taught by his grandfather how to play guitar and starting to write his own songs at 14 or 15, Elkins did not set out to become a professional singer-songwriter. Instead, after high school graduation, the then-17-year-old became a welder in a local factory. Then his trajectory changed.

Three years ago, a relative signed Elkins up for a local battle of the bands competition, even though his music performance experience had been limited to the church and a few gigs at local bars. Elkins also had no band at the time, so he quickly gathered three cousins and a friend to join him. They had three weeks to rehearse. While Elkins’ band “only” came in second, the experience started to change his path.

Photo: Anna Sink

For the next three years, Elkins and his band members continued to practice nearly every day while working regular jobs. Recording in a studio was a big step forward for the nascent group, according to his website. Luckily, Elkins and his band were already fans of [producer] Dave Cobb’s live-band production style before signing with Elektra/Low Country Sound, and so they relished the chance to record with him at his studio, Nashville RCA Studio A. Cobb has worked with the likes of Chris StapletonBrandi CarlileJohn PrineSturgill SimpsonJason IsbellThe Highwomen and Rival Sons.

Time for some music. Here’s the album’s opener Sugartooth. To me, it sounds a bit like Tom Petty channeling Chuck Berry’s Memphis Tennessee. Check this out!

Since I highlighted the album’s title track in my aforementioned Best of What’s New installment, I’m skipping it here to go right to Hands To Myself. The groovy and soulful tune addresses the touchy subject of domestic use…You can hope you can pray that maybe someday/Someone will love someone will help and put you on some kind of shelf/Oh I swear ill never learn to keep my hands to myself…“I’m writing about where I come from,” Elkins explains on his website. “Things I’ve seen and things I’ve heard. I had only been out of Michigan one time—to Graceland—before I started the band, so that little part of Michigan is all I really knew when writing this album.”

Wrong Side Of The River has a country rock flavor. Elkins’ website notes the tune encourages embracing where you’re from, because a supportive home life can make all the difference even if you’re not living on the so-called right side of town.

On Nashville Money, a nice bluesy rocker, Elkins muses about life as a professional music artist…With that Nashville money/gonna take care of my hopes and dreams/With that Nashville money/Gonna make a big star out of me

Let’s take a look at one more tune: Machine, a funky rock tune with a cool bass line.

As briefly noted above, Factories, Farms & Amphetamines was recorded live in studio at the storied RCA Studio A in Nashville. In early 2016, Dave Cobb took over the historic landmark for his Low Country Sound record label imprint. Apart from Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell, some of the other artists who worked there include The Beach Boys, Joe Cocker, Waylon Jennings, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn, The Monkees, Dolly Parton, Leon Russell and George Strait.

In addition to Elkins (guitar, vocals), the album also features the members of his touring band: Caleb Stamphler (guitar), Avery Whitaker (guitar), Nathan Johnson (bass) and Jake Bartlett (drums). Here’s a Spotify link to the entire album:

Reflecting on working with producer Dave Cobb, Elkins states on his website: “I came in with probably 30 songs that we had widdled down from 50-60. Dave would just sit down with us and say ‘ok, let’s hear what you got.’ He knew pretty quickly which ones he wanted to dive into, and from there, it was just kind of a Dave Cobb crash course. We’d only been in the studio one time before that, so there might have been a thing or two that we needed to learn.”

Encouraged by the experience, apparently, Elkins is already looking forward to recording more music. “Now when I’m writing songs, I have all these Dave-isms in my head—like, ‘Oh, yeah, there we go. All right, throw this here.’”, he notes. “Before we recorded Factories, Farms & Amphetamines, I thought maybe you had to be a superhero to make a record. Next time, it’s going be a little easier.”

Elkins is off to a great start as a recording artist, and he’s only 21 years old. I think we can look forward to more great music from this talented young artist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Myron Elkins website; YouTube; Spotify

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Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

It’s Wednesday and I hope you’re having a great day. Wednesday also means it’s time again for taking a closer look at a particular song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all. My pick for today is Train to Birmingham by John Hiatt, a great singer-songwriter I had known by name for many years but only started to explore about 18 months ago.

While Hiatt has written songs for 50-plus years and recorded close to 30 albums, his tunes oftentimes became hits for other artists. Perhaps the most prominent examples are Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. KingBob DylanBuddy GuyEmmylou HarrisJoan BaezLinda RonstadtThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band  and Willy DeVille.

Train to Birmingham, penned by Hiatt, is what I would call a deep cut from a studio album titled Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns, which Hiatt released in August 2011. Unlike many of his other records, this one fared better in the charts, reaching no. 7 in the U.S. on Billboard’s Independent Albums chart and climbing to no. 59 on the Billboard 200. Elsewhere, it peaked at no. 17 in Sweden, no. 20 in The Netherlands and no. 61 in Germany, among others. The tune was never released as a single.

Train to Birmingham was covered by American country music artist Kevin Welch on his sophomore album Western Beat, released in April 1992 as Kevin Welch @nd The Overtones. Good rendition!

Following are some additional tidbits on Train to Birmingham from Songfacts:

American folk-rock singer-songwriter John Hiatt wrote this song in his late teens, but it didn’t make it onto a disc until his 2011 album Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns. He explained why he finally decided to record the track in an interview with American Songwriter: “You know what, my wife really loves the song. And she’s been asking me to record it for years, and it kind of seemed right on this record. We were doing all of these songs about cities and different locations and going from the city and the country and back and forth. It’s our 25th wedding anniversary this year back in June, so I just thought I’d record this song for her.”

Hiatt told the story of how he came to pen a train song to American Songwriter: “I wrote it when I was about 19. I’d been in Nashville a year — I came to Nashville when I was about 18, and I was writing for Tree Publishing Company, and I wasn’t a country songwriter by any stretch, but I was surrounded by those guys. Like Bobby Braddock, who wrote a lot of George Jones and Tammy Wynette hits. And Curly Putnam,who wrote ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ and ‘Red Lane,’ all these hit country songwriters of the day. I was writing my little folk songs, or whatever they hell they were, and I was trying to pick up the craft, at any rate, and I said, ‘Well how do you write a country song?’ and one of them said one day, ‘Well, you gotta have a train song.’ And I though well s–t, I think I can write a song about a train.

And back in those days on Music Row, all the publishing companies were just in little houses, and the songwriters lived right next door. I lived in a little house with four or five other writers, and none of us were really country writers. One guy was from upstate New York trying to get some rock and roll thing going. Those were some real interesting times in Nashville, as it always is. But this one guy was from Birmingham and he kept going home every damn weekend like he couldn’t stand to be away. And I just though well s–t, there’s my ‘Train To Birmingham.'”

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Good morning (in my part of the woods, New Jersey, USA), good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are – welcome to another Sunday Six! If you’re a frequent traveler, you know what’s about to unfold. For first-time visitors, I hope you stick around to join me and others on a new excursion into the great world of music, six tunes at a time. Off we go!

Nat Adderley/Work Song

Today, our trip starts in 1960 with music by jazz musician Nat Adderley, who became best known for playing the cornet, a brass instrument similar to a trumpet. After starting to play the trumpet in 1946 as a 15-year-old, Adderley switched to the cornet in 1950. Together with his older brother, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, he co-founded Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1956 and frequently worked with the group until its dissolution in 1975, following the death of his older brother. In addition to playing bebop, Cannonball Adderley Quintet became known for starting the soul jazz genre. Adderly also worked with Kenny Clarke, Wes Montgomery, Walter Booker, Ron Carter and Sonny Fortune, among others. Nat Adderley passed away in January 2000 at the age of 68 due to complications from diabetes. Work Song, composed by Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr., is the title track of an album Adderley released in 1960. The tune features Adderley (cornet), Montgomery (guitar), Bobby Timmons (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Louis Hayes (drums). Groovy stuff but not too aggressive – perfect music to start a Sunday morning!

John Hiatt/Shredding the Document

The more I listen to John Hiatt, the more I dig the man! While Hiatt has written songs for 50-plus years and recorded close to 30 albums, his tunes oftentimes became hits for other artists. Perhaps the most prominent examples are Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. KingBob DylanBuddy GuyEmmylou HarrisJoan BaezLinda RonstadtThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band  and Willy DeVille. Shredding the Document, penned by Hiatt, is from Walk On, an album released in October 1995. Peaking at no. 48 on the Billboard 200, it ranks among his better performing records on the U.S. mainstream chart. Walk On did best in Belgium and Sweden, where it climbed to no. 10 and no. 13, respectively.

James Brown/The Boss

Next, let’s get funky with James Brown and The Boss, a tune from Black Cesar, the soundtrack album for the blaxploitation crime drama motion picture of the same name. The Boss was co-written by Brown, Charles Bobbit and Fred Wesley. The album and the film were released in February 1973. While reactions were mixed among music critics, Black Cesar peaked at no. 31 on the Billboard 200, making it Brown’s second highest-charting album on the U.S. pop chart in the ’70s. I love the guitar work on this tune. The lush horns give it a true ’70s feel.

Yes/Owner of a Lonely Heart

On to the ’80s and the biggest hit by English progressive rock band Yes: Owner of a Lonely Heart. After the group had disbanded in 1981, original co-founder Chris Squire (bass) and Alan White (drums) who had joined Yes in 1972 formed Cinema in January 1982, together with guitarist and singer-songwriter Trevor Rabin and original Yes keyboarder Tony Kaye. In November 1982, they started work on an album with a more pop-oriented sound. During the mixing stage, former Yes vocalist Jon Anderson joined Cinema, which subsequently became the new line-up of Yes. The album was titled 90125, after its catalog number of record label Atco. Owner of a Lonely Heart, written primarily by Rabin with contributions from Anderson, Squire and producer Trevor Horn, topped the Billboard Hot 100. Elsewhere, it climbed to no. 2 in The Netherlands, no. 14 in Australia, no. 28 in the UK and no. 30 in Ireland. 90125 became the group’s best-selling album, reaching 3x Platinum certification in the U.S., 2X Platinum in Canada, Platinum in Germany and Gold in the UK and France. Today, Yes (featuring longtime guitarist Steve Howe) are embarking on a U.S. tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their fifth studio album Close to the Edge. While Owner of a Lonely Heart has a commercial ’80s sound, it’s an awesome tune!

Pretenders/Alone

I trust the English-American rock band The Pretenders (known as Pretenders since 1990) don’t need much of an introduction. The group was formed in March 1978 and originally included Chrissie Hynde (lead and backing vocals, rhythm guitar, harmonica), James Honeyman-Scott (lead guitar, backing vocals, keyboards), Pete Farndon (bass, backing vocals) and Martin Chambers (drums, backing vocals, percussion). By the time the 10th album Alone was released in October 2016, Hynde was literally alone as the only remaining member. She relied on session musicians to record the album, essentially mirroring the same approach Hynde took once before, in 1990 for Packed!, the fifth album that appeared under the band’s name – the first released as Pretenders. Today, the group has a full line-up, with Chambers back in the fold. Here’s the defiant title track of Alone – I love Hynde’s feisty lyrics, which are a perfect match for the raw sound!

The Fuzztones/Barking Up the Wrong Tree

And once again we’ve arrived at our final destination, which takes us back to the present. This past April, American garage rock revival band The Fuzztones put out their latest studio release. Encore is “a collection of unreleased tracks packaged together as a way to say thank you to the faithful who have followed and supported the band through the years,” Tinnitist reported at the time. The Fuzztones were originally formed by singer and guitarist Rudi Protrudi in New York in 1982, who remains the only original member. Since their 1985 debut Lysergic Emanations, they have released eight additional albums including Encore. Barking Up The Wrong Tree, written by Protrudi, is the only original song. The other six tracks are covers of tunes by Rare Earth, The Wildwood and others. Fuzzy garage rock – I love that sound!

Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete with a Spotify playlist of the above songs. Hope there’s something you dig.

Sources: Wikipedia; Yes website; Tinnitist; YouTube; Spotify

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s I Am The Moon Called Their Most Ambitious Studio Project to Date

Part II: I Am The Moon: III. The Fall & I Am The Moon: IV. Farewell

Last Friday (Aug 26), Tedeschi Trucks Band released I Am The Moon: IV. Farewell, the fourth and final installment of their I Am the Moon four-album series. This is the second part of my review of what has been called the band’s most ambitious studio effort to date. You can read the first part here.

Borrowing from my previous post, I Am the Moon is a series of four albums, each accompanied by a film, with a total of 24 songs. The extraordinary project was inspired by a 12th-century Persian poem. Intriguingly, the very same poem also inspired one of the greatest blues rock albums of all time: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, by Derek and the Dominos.

Tedeschi Trucks Band: Led by Susan Tedeschi (guitar, vocals) and Derek Trucks (guitar), the group also includes original members Tyler Greenwell (drums, percussion), Mike Mattison (harmony vocals), Mark Rivers (harmony vocals) and Kebbi Williams (saxophone). Isaac Eady (drums & percussion), Alecia Chakour (harmony vocals), Elizabeth Lea (trombone), Ephraim Owens (trumpet), Brandon Boone (bass) and Gabe Dixon (keyboards & vocals) complete the current 12-piece lineup

I Am The Moon is the fifth studio effort by Tedeschi Trucks Band, who were founded in 2010 and are led by married couple Susan Tedeschi (guitar, vocals) and Derek Trucks (guitar). After touring together in 2007 as the Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi’s Soul Stew Revival, Trucks and Tedeschi merged their respective groups to create a mighty 11-piece band. In 2015, they added another member and have since been a 12-piece – what an army of musicians!

The project was inspired by Layla and Majnun, a poem written by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. The romantic narrative poem has been called the “Romeo and Juliet of the East” by English poet Lord Byron, who according to Wikipedia is considered one of the greatest English poets and a leading figure of the Romantic movement.

I’d say it’s time to get to some music. Let’s start with two tracks off I Am The Moon: III. The Fall, which was released on July 29. Here’s the opener Somehow, penned by the band’s keyboarder and vocalist Gabe Dixon, together with external songwriter Tia Sillers. The album’s accompanying essay by renowned American music journalist David Fricke describes the tune as “an easy-rolling groove that soon turns into full-blown soul power.” I could totally picture Bonnie Raitt singing it – love this!

Yes We Will is more bluesy. Penned by Susan Tedeschi, the tune is much closer to what I had associated with Tedeschi Trucks Band before listening to I Am The Moon. From Fricke’s essay: “Derek and I have so many blues roots,” she says, “and I really wanted to show those roots, where this band is at.” The result is early-Seventies B.B. King arm in arm with the Staple Singers, while the guitar breaks affirm the rise-and-shine in the lyrics and Tedeschi’s vocal. Come on, wake up people, can’t you see it now? Time is right now, she declares as Mattison, Mark Rivers and Alecia Chakour bring the train-to-glory in the chorus. You can’t help but believe it. Great song!

Here’s a Spotify link to I Am The Moon: III. The Fall:

Here’s the companion film for the third album:

On to I Am The Moon: IV. Farewell. My first pick here is Soul Sweet Song, co-written by Derek Trucks, Gabe Dixon and the band’s harmony vocalist Mike Mattison. From Fricke’s album essay: “That was Gabe,” Trucks says of Dixon, who co-wrote this song with the guitarist and Mattison. “He had the idea of writing it about Kofi” – original TTB keyboard player Kofi Burbridge, who was ill when Dixon joined in late 2018, at first on a temporary basis. (Burbridge died in February 2019, on the day his last album with the group, Signs, was released.) “Gabe writing lyrics about Kofi (I feel your rhythm moving me/’Cause your soul’s sweet song’s still singing) – that one hit me between the eyes.” A special guest on congas, Marc Quiñones – a longtime bandmate with Trucks in the Allman Brothers Band – adds a decisive and familiar, rhythmic element to the celebration.

The last track I’d like to call out is I Can Feel You Smiling, which perfectly sums up my sentiment about this album series. One last time quoting from Fricke’s album essay: This sparsely arranged ballad “was fun to write,” says Trucks, who “woke up in the morning, had the tune and put it on my phone. It reminded me of something Oliver Wood” – singer-guitarist in the Wood Brothers and a longtime friend of TTB – “would have written, so I sent it to him. He wrote back, ‘Man, I woke up the last few days with that melody in my head. Do you mind if I write something to it?’ I’m like, ‘Have at it, man.'” Wood sent back “this beautiful recording with one verse and a chorus, and I was like ‘Okay, that song’s done!'” Dixon contributed as well, underscoring the group work ethic – in composing, arranging and performance – that produced every song on I Am The Moon.

Here’s a Spotify link to the fourth album:

And here’s the companion film to I Am The Moon: IV. Farewell.

I Am The Moon is a massive project, so there’s a lot to take in here. While I knew Tedeschi Trucks Band were top-notch musicians, I really didn’t expect them to be as soulful as they are on these four albums. Admittedly, at least part of it could be plain ignorance. In any case, I really dig what this group has done here. Now I feel like seeing them. After four big-ticket shows back in June, it is going to have to wait!

Sources: Tedeschi Trucks Band website; YouTube; Spotify

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six and hope you’re enjoying your weekend. Whatever it is you’re doing or plans you may have, most things go better with great music. I invite you to join me to embark on a new trip to celebrate music of the past and the present, six tunes at a time.

Coleman Hawkins Quartet/Love Song From “Apache”

Let’s start our journey in August 1963 with some soothing saxophone jazz by Coleman Hawkins. According to Wikipedia, German jazz music journalist Joachim-Ernst Berendt characterized Hawkins as one of the first prominent tenor sax jazz players, saying, “There were some tenor players before him, but the instrument was not an acknowledged jazz horn”. It’s my first exposure to Hawkins, so I’ll take that comment at face value. Born in St. Joseph, Mo. in 1904, Hawkins started playing saxophone at the age of 9. As a 17-year-old, he already was playing with Mamie Smith’s Jazz Hounds. While Hawkins became known with swing music during the big band era, he also had a role in the development of bebop in the ’40s. Love Song From “Apache”, composed by Johnny Mercer and David Raskin, is a beautiful track from a 1963 album by the Coleman Hawkins Quartet titled Today And Now. For jazz aficionados, Cole was backed by Tommy Flanagan (piano), Major Holley (upright bass) and Eddie Locke (drums).

Tears For Fears/Advice For the Young at Heart

On February 25, Tears For Fears released their first new album in nearly 18 years. While I’ve yet to spend more time with The Tipping Point, it brought the British new wave duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith back on my radar screen. Formed in 1981, they are best remembered for their ’80s hits Mad World, Shout, Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Sowing the Seeds of Love. Given the Beatlesque sound of the latter, perhaps it’s not a surprise that tune, off their September 1989 album The Seeds of Love, is my favorite. Another song from that album I’ve always liked is Advice For the Young at Heart. Like several other tunes, it is credited to Orzabal and Nicky Holland, the keyboarder in Tears For Fears’ touring band during most of the second half of the ’80s.

John Hiatt & The Gooners/My Baby Blue

Next, let’s jump to May 2003 and a great tune by John Hiatt, an artist I’ve really come to appreciate over the past couple of years. While Hiatt has written songs for 50-plus years and recorded close to 30 albums, his tunes oftentimes became hits for other artists. Perhaps the most prominent examples are Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt  and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. KingBob DylanBuddy GuyEmmylou HarrisJoan BaezLinda RonstadtThe Nitty Gritty Dirt Band  and Willy DeVille. My Baby Blue, penned by Hiatt, is from his 17h studio album Beneath This Gruff Exterior, the only one that also credits his backing band The Gooners who also backed him on the Slow Turning (August 1988) and The Tiki Bar Is Open (September 2001) albums.

Chuck Prophet/Ford Econoline

When Spotify served up Ford Econoline by Chuck Prophet the other day, for a moment, I thought I was listening to a Ray Davies tune. From his AllMusic bio: Chuck Prophet is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who has created a handful of impressive solo albums when he isn’t busy collaborating with some of the most respected figures in roots rock. A songwriter with a naturalistic sense of storytelling and drawing characters, and a melodic sense that brings together the impact of rock with the nuance of country, blues, and folk, Prophet has been releasing worthwhile solo albums since 1990, when he brought out his first solo LP, Brother Aldo. Prior to that, he was a key member of the rough-edged Paisley Underground band Green on Red, who had a small cult following in the United States and a significantly larger one overseas, and in between solo efforts, he worked as a sideman, collaborator, or producer for Alejandro Escovedo, Kelly Willis, Warren Zevon, Cake, Kim Richey, and many more. Well, I’m glad to finally “meet” an artist who it sounds like should have entered my radar screen a long time ago. Ford Econoline, written by Prophet, is a track from Night Surfer, an album that appeared in September 2014. Man, I love that tune and really want to hear more by Prophet. Any tips are welcome!

Traffic/Walking in the Wind

Alrighty, time to pay the ’70s a visit. The year is 1974 and the month is September. That’s when Traffic released their seventh studio album When the Eagle Flies. It would be the English rock band’s last record before Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi revived Traffic one more time for Far From Home, the final album released under that name in May 1994. On When the Eagle Flies, apart from Windwood (vocals, acoustic piano, organ, Mellotron, Moog synthesizer, guitars) and Capaldi (drums, percussion, backing vocals, keyboards), the band’s line-up also included founding member Chris Wood (flute, saxophones), as well as Rosko Gee (bass). By the time the record came out, percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah had been fired. Perhaps this explains why he remained uncredited for the congas he provided for two tunes – not a nice thing to do! Here’s Walking in the Wind, which like all other tunes except one was co-written by Winwood and Capaldi.

The Animals/Boom Boom

And once again, we’ve reached the final stop of our little trip. Let’s finish things off with a great rendition of John Lee Hooker classic Boom Boom by The Animals. The British blues rock band first released this gem as a single in North America in November 1964. It was also included on their second American studio album The Animals on Tour from February 1965, a somewhat misleading title for a studio recording. Originally, Boom Boom had appeared in March 1962 on Hooker’s studio album Burnin‘. The Animals’ rendition reached no. 43 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and no. 14 in Canada on the RPM Top 40 & 5 singles chart. Hooker’s original peaked at no. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100, only one of two of his songs that made the mainstream chart, as well as no. 16 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides. I never get tired to listen to Eric Burdon’s great voice and the band’s hot sound!

Here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above goodies. Hope there’s something there you like!

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue

The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood  “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo.  Countless other major artists, such as Miles DavisAretha FranklinB.B. King  and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate  The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

The theater reopened under new management in 1978, before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo  Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo  is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.”

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th-anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s  annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Merry Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville  (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

– End –

Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Kansas

Happy Wednesday! By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors of the blog know that I have to make another important decision today. For less frequent flyers or first-time visitors, I’m about to leave for an imaginary desert island. Since survival without music would be impossible, I have to pick what to take with me on the trip, but there’re a few twists.

I can only select one song at a time. Albums don’t qualify. It also needs to be a tune by a band or an artist I’ve only rarely written about or not covered at all to date. I’m doing this exercise in an alphabetical fashion, largely relying on my own music library.

We’re up to the letter “K”. Some of the options I could have selected include B.B. King, Carole King, The Kinks, Kiss, The Knack, Lenny Kravitz and Kris Kristofferson. Based on the above criteria, my pick is Kansas and Carry On Wayward Son.

I can’t claim much familiarity with the American rock band beyond their best-known tunes, but once I decided to select Kansas, my specific song choice was easy. Carry On Wayward Son is one of my favorite ’70s rock tunes. While I’m usually in the camp of less is more when it comes to guitar riffs, I find the guitar work on this song really cool, even though it’s pretty complex.

Carry On Wayward Son was penned by guitarist Kerry Livgren, one of the band’s founding members, who also played keyboards and sang backing vocals. The song first appeared on the group’s fourth studio album Leftoverture released in October 1976. In November of that year, it also became the record’s first of two singles and the band’s first charting song.

In the U.S., Carry On Wayward Son climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be the group’s second-highest charting single there after Dust in the Wind, the 1978 ballad that reached no. 6 and brought Kansas on my radar screen. Elsewhere, Carry On Wayward Son charted in Canada (no. 5), the UK (no. 51) and Australia (no. 58). Undoubtedly, the tune’s performance helped propel Leftoverture to 5X Platinum certification status in the U.S., making it the band’s highest-selling album to date.

Except for a 7-month break-up period between August 1984 and March 1985, Kansas have been active since 1970. Their origins go back to 1969 when Kerry Livgren and Don Montre (keyboards, backing vocals), who had played together in a group called Reasons Why, formed a new band, Saratoga, together with Dan Wright (keyboards) and Lynn Meredith. In 1970, that group became Kansas. They were joined by Dave Hope (bass) and Phil Erhart (drums). Greg Allen (lead and backing vocals) and Larry Baker (saxophone) completed the inaugural line-up.

After some twists and turns, Kansas released their eponymous debut album in March 1974. It would be the first of 16 records that have appeared to date. The most recent album The Absence of Presence came out in July 2020. At the time, I featured one of the tracks in a Best of What’s New installment.

As you would imagine, Kansas have gone through multiple line-up changes. One of the more significant chapters in the band’s long history was the departure of Livgren in 1983, who had been one of their major songwriters. In the late ’70s, Livgren became a born-again Christian. His lyrics increasingly reflected a Christian perspective, which resulted in growing tension among members of the band and eventually to their above noted short break-up in August 1984.

In March 1985, Ehart and longtime Kansas members Rich Williams (guitars, backing vocals) and Steve Walsh (lead and backing vocals, keyboards, percussion) reunited, joined by Billy Greer (bass, acoustic guitar, backing and lead vocals) and Steve Morse (lead and rhythm guitars, backing vocals). Ehart, Williams and Greer remain with the group’s current line-up.

The current line-up of Kansas (from left): David Ragsdale, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, Richard Williams, Tom Brislin, and Billy Greer. CREDIT: EMILY BUTLER PHOTOGRAPHY

Following are some additional insights in Carry On Wayward Son from Songfacts:

According to Livgren, the song was not written to express anything specifically religious, though it certainly expresses spiritual searching and other ideas.

Livgren became an evangelical Christian in 1980, and has said that his songwriting to that point was all about “searching.” Regarding this song, he explained: “I felt a profound urge to ‘Carry On’ and continue the search. I saw myself as the ‘Wayward Son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him. The positive note at the end (‘surely heaven waits for you’) seemed strange and premature, but I felt impelled to include it in the lyrics. It proved to be prophetic.”

…Sitting at his parent’s home, in front of the family organ, Livgren composed the music for what would become “Carry On Wayward Son.” In late 2011, Livgren stated in a short interview at his home that the lyrics were partially about himself and the struggles and pressures he was facing at the time when the band’s career was on the line. The piano interlude and accompanying verse express how happy the band’s success had made him, as well as how sad and fearful he was that it might possibly be over (“I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high”). However, the chorus expresses hope that everything will work out and that he must simply keep going. (“Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done”).

In reality, the song was almost not included on the album, and thus contributes to the album’s title of Leftoverture. The album title comes from the idea that many of the songs are leftover songs from the band’s past. For instance, the string part at the end of the second track, “The Wall”, was an old song idea that was added on to the end of the song for the record. The album, while met with mixed reviews by critics, was commercially successful, going platinum five times. “Carry On” became the bands’ first Top 40 hit (peaking at #11), and is often regarded as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It gave Kansas the staying power it needed to keep producing records with Kirshner, and earned Kerry Livgren the reputation as one of the most respected musicians and lyricists in rock and roll.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday morning/afternoon/evening, wherever you are when reading this. It’s time to resume some music time travel. Today’s six-stop journey starts in the ’60s with stop-overs in the ’90s, ’70s, ’10s and ’80s before coming to an end in the ’00s. Fasten your seatbelts and off we go!

Sonny Rollins/Where Are You?

I’d like to ease us into today’s musical trip with some relaxing jazz by Sonny Rollins. Jazz connoisseurs need no introduction to the American tenor saxophone great. For more casual jazz listeners like me, Rollins is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians who over an incredible 70-year-plus career has recorded more than 60 albums as a leader and appeared on many additional records as a sideman. Rollins has played with the likes of Charlie ParkerMiles DavisDizzy GillespieThelonious MonkMax Roach and Modern Jazz QuartetWhere Are You? appeared on his 1962 studio album The Bridge, which Wikipedia notes was Rollins’ first release after a three-year sabbatical. Composed by Jimmy McHugh with lyrics by Harold Adamson, the track was written for the 1937 American comedy film Top of the Town and originally performed by Gertrude Niesen. On his rendition, Rollins was joined by Jim Hall (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (double bass) and Ben Riley (drums). I don’t have to be a jazz expert to love this track and neither do you. Just listen to that smooth saxophone sound! Rollins who celebrated his 91st birthday last September is still alive – bless the man!

Blue Rodeo/5 Days in May

Our next stop is the ’90s and beautiful music by Blue Rodeo, which is right up my alley. I’ve featured the Canadian country rock band on the blog before. They were formed in 1984 in Toronto by high school friends Jim Cuddy (vocals, guitar) and Greg Keelor (vocals, guitar), who had played together in various bands before, along with Bob Wiseman (keyboards).  Cleave Anderson (drums) and Bazil Donovan (bass) completed the band’s initial lineup. After gaining a local following in Toronto and signing with Canadian independent record label Risque Disque, the group released their debut album Outskirts in March 1987. 5 Days in May is the opener of the band’s fifth studio album Five Days in July, which appeared in October 1993 in Canada and September 1994 in the U.S. With 6X Platinum certification in Canada, it remains their best-selling album to date. Like most other tunes on the record, 5 Days in May was co-written by Cuddy and Keelor. The harmonica and guitar action are very reminiscent of Neil Young. I also love that keyboard sound. It’s just a great song all around!

The Jaggerz/The Rapper

When I came across The Rapper by The Jaggerz the other day, I earmarked it immediately for an upcoming Sunday Six. The American rock band from Pittsburgh, Pa. was initially active from 1964 until 1977. During that period, they only released three albums. After the third, Come Again from 1975, they broke up in 1977. By that time, frontman and co-founder Dominic Ierace had already left the group and joined American funk rock band Wild Cherry, best known for Play That Funky Music, their only major single success. In 1989, The Jaggerz reunited sans Ierace with three other original founders and three new members. They have since released three additional albums, the most recent of which came out in 2014 – not an exactly overwhelming catalog! The group’s current formation, a six-piece, includes founding members Jimmie Ross (lead vocals, bass) and Benny Faiella (guitar). The Rapper became the band’s breakthrough single and only hit in January 1970, surging to no. 2 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Ierace, it was included on their sophomore studio album We Went to Different Schools Together, released that same year.

Alison Krauss & Union Station/Miles to Go

For this next pick, let’s go to the current century. Miles To Go is a song from Paper Airplane, released in April 2011 by Alison Krauss & Union Station. The bluegrass and country artist, who is also a talented fiddle player, has been active since 1984. She made her recording debut in 1986 with Different Strokes, a collaboration with Jim Hoiles & Friends and Swamp Weiss. To date, Krauss has released 14 albums, most frequently together with bluegrass and country band Union Station. I’m mostly aware of Krauss because of her two collaboration records with Robert Plant. Miles to Go was co-written by Union Station bassist Barry Bales and Chris Stapleton. Krauss is a great vocalist and I also dig the band’s sound. Yesterday, in addition to further checking out Paper Airplane, I sampled Lonely Runs Both Ways, her preceding album with Union Station from November 2004. Lots of great music only between these two records!

John Hiatt/Memphis in the Meantime

Memphis, Tenn. and its amazing music history are on my bucket list. Graceland, Sun Studio and the Stax Museum surely sound like worthy sites to visit. In the meantime, I’m picking a tune about the city by John Hiatt, a great artist I’ve started to explore in greater detail over the past few years. The singer-songwriter who has been active for 50 years is best known for tunes that have been covered by the likes of B.B. KingBob DylanBonnie RaittEmmylou HarrisEric ClaptonJoe CockerLinda RonstadtRy Cooder and Nick Lowe. While Hiatt’s albums received positive reviews from critics, it took eight records and more than 10 years until he finally had an album that made the Billboard 200Bring the Family, from May 1987, which reached no. 107. Memphis in the Meantime is the opener of that great record. It also includes two tunes popularized by two of the aforementioned artists: Thing Called Love, by Bonnie Raitt; and Have a Little Faith in Me, by Joe Cocker.

The Chesterfield Kings/The Rise and Fall

Once again it’s time to wrap things up. For the final stop of our musical mini-excursion, let’s get a dose of psychedelic garage rock by The Chesterfield Kings. Founded in the late ’70s by Greg Prevost (lead vocals, multiple instruments), the band from Rochester, N.Y. was instrumental in sparking the 1980s garage band revival, according to Wikipedia. A partial discography there lists 11 albums by the group that was active until 2009. Rise and Fall, co-written by Provost and bandmate Andy Babiuk (bass and multiple other instruments), is a tune from a 2007 album titled Psychedelic Sunrise. The group’s line-up at that time also included Paul Morabito (guitars, mandolin, organ) and Mike Boise (drums, percussion). BTW, the album was produced by garage rock fan Steven Van Zandt. I could picture this tune played by The Rolling Stones during their psychedelic period.

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring all of the above goodies!

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube; Spotify

Blues Is My Business

I guess the title of the post, which I creatively borrowed from an Etta James song, pretty much gives it away. I’ve been into the blues and blues rock on and off for close to 40 years. My relatively short-lived period as a hobby bassist many moons ago started in a blues band.

After primarily focusing on other genres, I’ve turned more of my attention back to the blues over the past few years. While the old blues guard, i.e., the likes of B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, is largely gone, encouragingly, a good number of relatively young artists including a significant amount of females are keeping the blues alive and putting their own stamp on it.

The idea for this post, which celebrates blues and blues rock from young and old artists, was triggered the other day when I came across Worried Life Blues, as covered by B.B. King and Eric Clapton on their great collaboration album Riding with the King from June 2000. Most of the music I feature here is in a Spotify playlist at the end of the post. I’m highlighting six of the tunes in the upfront.

B.B. King and Eric Clapton/Worried Life Blues

Starting with the song that inspired this post felt appropriate. Worried Life Blues was written by American blues pianist Major Merriweather, better known as Big Maceo Merriweather, and county blues artist Samuel John “Lightnin’”  Hopkins, who was known as Lightnin’ Hopkins. It was first recorded and released by Merriwater in 1941. The tune was based on Someday Baby Blues, a Sleepy John Estes song from 1935. Worried Life Blues became one of the most recorded blues standards of all time.

The Boneshakers/Let’s Straighten It Out

My longtime music friend from Germany recently brought this excellent tune to my attention. The Boneshakers were formed in the early 1990s by Was (Not Was) guitarist Randy Jacobs and Hillard “Sweet Pea” Atkinson, one of the group’s vocalists after Was (Not Was) had gone on hiatus. Let’s Straighten It Out is from The Boneshakers’ debut album Book of Spells, which appeared in January 1997. The tune was penned by blues vocalist Benny Latimore, who recorded it for his 1974 album More More More. The original is great, but this rendition is killer!

Shemekia Copeland/Salt In My Wounds

Shemekia Copeland, the daughter of Texas blues guitarist and vocalist Johnny Copeland, is an incredible blues vocalist who has released 10 albums to date. Salt In My Wounds is from her April 1998 debut Turn the Heat Up! The track was penned by blues guitarists Joe Louis Walker and Alan Mirikitani. Copeland’s delivery is riveting.

Jontavious Willis/Take Me to the Country

Next up is Jontavious Willis, a young country blues guitarist from Greenville, Ga. Taj Mahal, one of his mentors, has called him “wunderkind”. I saw Willis open up for him and Keb’ Mo’ in August 2017 and was very impressed. Mahal also executive-produced Willis’ sophomore album Spectacular Class, which appeared in April 2019. I previously reviewed it here. Following is a tune from that album, Take Me to the Country. Check this out. Not only is the guitar-playing outstanding, but the singing is great as well!

Danielle Nicole/Save Me

Danielle Nicole (né Danielle Nicole Schnebelen) is a blues and soul musician from Kansas City, Mo. Prior to releasing her solo debut Wolf Den in 2015, Nicole co-founded Kansas City soul and blues rock band Trampled Under Foot in 2000 and was their lead vocalist and bassist. The band recorded five albums before it dissolved in 2015. Save Me, co-written by Schnebelen and drummer and producer Tony Braunagel, is a tune from Nicole’s third and most recent studio album Cry No More. It features Kenny Wayne Shepherd on guitar.

Little Steven/Blues Is My Business

It may seem a bit odd to highlight Little Steven’s version of the above-noted tune that was first recorded by Etta James as The Blues Is My Business for her 26th studio Let’s Roll. James’ version is great. Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt) takes the song, which was co-written by Kevin Bowe and Todd Cherney, to the next level with a soulful rendition that reminds me of Joe Cocker. He included it on his excellent studio album Soulfire from May 2017.

Here’s the above-mentioned playlist with plenty of additional music. Hope you find something you like.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

What I’ve Been Listening to: The Marcus King Band/Carolina Confessions

I first came across Marcus King in March 2020 when working on a post about the multinational music project Playing for Change and was immediately impressed. Taking a subsequent look at his solo debut album El Dorado in April that year confirmed my initial positive impression of the then-24-year-old guitarist and singer-songwriter from Greenville, S.C. And just last Friday, I was reminded of King who plays on a tune from John Mayall’s upcoming new album, which I included in my Best of What’s New installment that day. So I decided to explore more of his music.

According to King’s website, Marcus started learning guitar at age three or four. He has played professionally since he was 11 and always knew he wanted to make music his life. A fourth-generation musician, Marcus has followed in his family’s footsteps. His grandfather was a country guitarist, and his father continues to perform live. [His father is Marvin King, a well-known blues guitarist in South Carolina – CMM]

The Marcus King Band founded in Greenville, South Carolina in 2013, is his tight knit group. Drummer Jack Ryan, bass player Stephen Campbell, trumpeter/trombonist Justin Johnson, sax/steel guitarist Dean Mitchell along with Marcus—bring an irreplaceable combination of commitment, craft and soul to their work and are one of the hardest working bands today.

In 2015, The Marcus King Band released their debut album Soul Insight, which reached an impressive no. 8 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart. King was only 19 years at the time! Their eponymous sophomore release from 2016 did even better, climbing all the way to no. 2 on the blues chart. Carolina Confessions is the band’s third full-length LP that came in August 2018. Let’s take a closer look! Unless noted otherwise, all tunes were written by King.

Here’s the opener Where I’m Headed. All it takes is to listen to the first few bars to make two observations: The music is warm and rich, and King’s vocals sound very soulful – not what you’d expect from a then-22-year-old! The horns further boost the music’s soul vibe. This is so good!

Homesick is a great bluesy and funky tune. Again, the horns give this track a soulful vibe. Here’s a neat lyric video, in which you can see King and the band in action. He looks so young, and yet he sounds so mature!

Here’s How Long, another funky tune. It’s the only track that included other writers: Dan Auerbach, who produced King’s solo debut album, and Pat McLaughlin, a Nashville, Tenn.-based singer-songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others.

Let’s do one more: Confessions, a slow-burning, blues-oriented rocker. I don’t mean to sound stereotypical here, but I just find it mind-boggling how a white artist in his early 20s can channel so much soulfulness in his singing. I mean, holy cow, check this out!

Carolina Confessions was recorded at the renowned RCA Studio A in Nashville, originally known as RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios. The Beach Boys, B.B. King, Loretta Lynn and Leon Russell are among the many artists who have recorded at the storied studio.

The album was produced and mixed by Dave Cobb who has worked with the likes of Rival Sons, The Highway Women, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and John Prine. Like its predecessor, Carolina Confessions climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart. It also reached no. 2 on the Heatseekers Albums. I feel Marcus King has a bright future and look forward to hearing more music from this talented young artist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Marcus King Band website; YouTube; Spotify