On This Day In Rock & Roll History: August 5

1957: The music program American Bandstand debuted on U.S. national television. It was hosted by Dick Clark who had joined the show the previous year when it still had been known as Bandstand and aired on Philadelphia TV station WFIL-TV (now local ABC affiliate WPVI-TV). The program, which ran until 1989, featured many artists who lip-synced their latest hits. While as such it was chart-oriented, it coincided with time periods when great music was part of the mainstream. So it’s perhaps not a surprise to see which artists appeared on the show. According to Wikipedia, American Bandstand  helped introduce famous artists to Americans, such as Prince, Michael Jackson and Aerosmith. Some of the other acts who were on the program included The Animals, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Doors, Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, Van Morrison, R.E.M., Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder and even Pink Floyd. Here’s a clip of a 1966 appearance of Roy Orbison performing Oh, Pretty Woman, featuring one of the coolest ’60s guitar riffs that still sounds awesome to this day.

1966: The Beatles released their seventh studio album in the U.K., Revolver, which many fans consider the band’s best record. While it’s undoubtedly a great album, if I had to choose, I would go with the follow-on release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Revolver, apart from gems like Taxman, Eleanor Rigby and Got To Get You Into My Life, stands out for the introduction of various new recording techniques, including tape loops, backwards recordings, varispeeding and, most significantly, Artificial Double Tracking (ADT). George Martin’s string arrangement on Eleanor Rigby broke conventions by blending classical and pop music. George Harrison, who took on a bigger role in the album’s songwriting, introduced another Indian instrument to pop music after the sitar on predecessor Rubber Soul: the tambura. Here’s a clip of Eleanor Rigby.

1978: The Rolling Stones hit no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 with Miss You, their eighth and last no. 1 single in the U.S. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the song was written by Jagger while jamming with Billy Preston during rehearsals in 1977. It became the lead single for Some Girls, the band’s 14th and 16th British and American studio album, respectively. Apparently, there is some disagreement between Jagger and Ronnie Wood who maintain the track wasn’t supposed to be a disco song, while according to Richards, “Miss You’ was a damn good disco record; it was calculated to be one.” To me it’s obvious that Richards hates the tune. In my humble opinion, there’s no question the Stones have released much better songs.

1984: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band played the first of 10 gigs at Brendan Byrne Arena, now called Meadowlands Arena, in East Rutherford, N.J. during the Born In The U.S.A. Tour, Springsteen’s longest and most successful tour to date. The show included two sets and an encore, with a total of 28 tracks. As is typical for The Boss, he went far beyond the album that the tour supported and dug deep into his catalog. He also played a number of covers. Here’s a cool clip of a 21-minute medley captured during the same tour two weeks earlier in Toronto, Canada. The medley includes Devil With The Blue Dress, Good Golly Miss Molly, CC Rider, Jenny Jenny, I Hear A Train, Twist And Shout and Do You Love Me. The band is absolutely killing it – rock & roll simply doesn’t get better than this! The crazy thing is that Springsteen pretty performed with the same intensity 32 years later when I saw him last in August 2016 at MetLife Stadium, right across the highway from Meadowlands.

1992: Jeff Porcaro, best known as co-founder and drummer of Toto, passed away at the young age of 38 years. The circumstances of his death remain ambiguous. According to the band history on the official Toto website, Porcaro died from a heart attack that resulted from a severe allergic reaction to chemicals in pesticide he had sprayed in his garden earlier that day. But the Los Angeles Times reported the heart attack stemmed from atherosclerosis triggered by years of cocaine use. One thing is clear: Porcaro was an excellent, sought after session drummer, who apart from Toto worked with Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Boz Scaggs, among others. Here’s a clip of Rosanna from Toto IV, which I think features some of Porcaro’s finest drum work.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music.com; Billboard Hot 100 chart history; setlist.fm; Toto website; YouTube

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Damn Right, Buddy Guy Still Got The Blues

81-year-old Chicago blues legend shined at New York’s B.B. King Blues Club & Grill

Boy, had I been full of anticipation of this show, and Wednesday night it finally happened – Buddy Guy at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in the heart of New York City. It was just as amazing if not even better as the first time I had seen the Chicago blues legend at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center in July 2016. Undoubtedly, one factor was the more intimate club setting where I was seated much closer to the stage. And then, of course, there was the man himself, who at age 81 still delivers the blues with a Jimi Hendrix-like intensity.

From the very beginning with the excellent opener Damn Right, I Got The Blues, Guy left no doubt why he had come to the Big Apple. As I usually do, I didn’t take any videos with my smart phone. Instead, I’m relying on YouTube clips to recreate some of the show’s highlights with the caveat that the footage was captured at different gigs. Written by Guy, Damn Right, I Got The Blues is the title track of his seventh studio album from 1991. Here’s a nice clip of the blues rocker from 2016.

Guy followed up his set’s fiery start with a 12-minute-plus version of the classic I’m A Hoochie Coochie Man combined with She’s Nineteen Years Old. Both tunes were recorded by Muddy Waters, who became a major influence on Guy after he had moved from his native Louisiana to the windy city of Chicago in 1957. The following clip from a concert earlier this month nicely illustrates the onstage persona of Guy who likes to tease his audience by cursing like a sailor. It also showcases his killer piano player Marty Sammon.

Another highlight of the set was Five Long Years, which Guy also recorded for his Damn Right, I Got The Blues album. The tune was written and first recorded by blues pianist Eddie Boyd, who scored a no. 1 hit with it on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1952. Guy’s rendition featured more hilarious cursing and a crazy solo by his guitarist Ric Jaz Hall, who mostly played rhythm but proved he can shred as well, if given the opportunity. The following clip from July 2017 nicely illustrates all of that. Check out Hall’s solo starting at about 2:25 minutes into the tune.

Yet another great moment occurred when Guy performed Skin Deep, the title track of his 14th studio album from 2008. He was joined on stage by his long-time producer Tom Hambridge who co-wrote the beautiful ballad with Guy and Gary Nicholson. I just loved Guy’s soulful singing in that tune.

Apart from singing and playing great blues tracks like the above, Guy also credited white British blues artists, especially his friend Eric Clapton, with introducing black blues artists to broader, white audiences. He also threw in a bit of Hendrix. Here’s a cool clip of a medley including Voodoo Chile and Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love.

A few words about Guy’s excellent backing musicians, The Damn Right Blues Band. In addition to Sammon and Hall, the members include Orlando Wright (bass) and Tim Awesome Austin (drums). All of these artists are veterans of the Chicago blues scene and have been touring with Guy for more than a decade.

Also, the show had an excellent opening act, The Ben Miller Band. I had never heard of these guys before, who have been around since 2005. They play a dynamite mix of blues, country and bluegrass, using homemade instruments and other unusual equipment. Among others, this includes a one-string washtub bass played by Scott Leeper who is also the band’s drummer. In addition to a standard microphone, lead vocalist and guitarist Ben Miller uses a microphone from an old telephone that creates a unique distorted sound. Rachel Ammons (violin, cello, guitar) and Bob Lewis (bass, guitar, percussion) are also part of the current line-up.

I was very intrigued by this band and plan to check them out more closely. One of the tunes they played last night was a cool cover of Black Betty. Probably the best known version of this traditional African-American work song was released in 1977 by American one-hit rock band Ram Jam.

Finally, this post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the sad fact that Wednesday night’s concert was one of the final shows at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. After 18 years, the place is closing down at the end of the month. Guy will return to headline the final show on April 29. A note “To Our Valued Patrons” stated, “As a result of escalating rent, we are being forced to close our doors at the end of April” – what a shame! It was added the club is in the process to select a new location in Manhattan, so at least there appears to be a silver lining here.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Eric Clapton/461 Ocean Boulevard

1974 album marked Slowhand’s triumphant return to music after three-year heroin addiction

461 Ocean Boulevard represented a clear break for Eric Clapton from his hardcore blues rock-oriented days with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, The Yardbirds, Cream and Derek and the Dominos. I’m a fan of all the aforementioned bands but also dig the more laid back side Clapton showed on his second studio solo album, which was released in July 1974.

It’s important to remember this record came after a three-year hiatus during which Clapton had overcome a heroin addiction. As the great documentary Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars tells, he tragically ended up replacing heroin with alcohol before finally getting sober in 1987. Clapton had also grown weary about his previous status as a “guitar god,” so he was clearly looking for a new start.

The album opens with a cover of Motherless Children, a blues standard that was first recorded by American gospel blues singer Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. The sped up beat gives the tune a great groove. I also like Clapton’s slide guitar playing.

The second track Give Me Strength is one of three tunes, for which Clapton has writing credits. I dig the dobro he plays on that track, something that at the time of the album’s release seemed to irritate a Rolling Stone critic, who also noted, “What’s disturbing is not that Clapton plays differently, but that he plays so little.” In my humble opinion, knowing when and how to show restraint is part of being a great guitarist.

Willie And The Hand Jive is one of two songs that were also released separately as singles. The tune was written by Johnny Otis and first appeared in 1958. Like the original version, Clapton’s take has a cool Bo Diddley beat.

The second and undoubtedly much better known single from the record is I Shot The Sheriff, a nice cover of the Bob Marley tune. I really like the slightly funky guitar sound and the keyboard part on this recording. It became a big hit for Clapton, hitting no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, and also topping the charts in Canada and New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, years later Marley told Clapton he liked his cover.

Next up: Let It Grow, which is my personal favorite on the album and another tune written by Clapton and on which he plays the dobro. Yvonne Elliman sings backup vocals. Before joining Clapton’s band in 1974, she had played Mary Magdalene in the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar. Elliman also scored a hit with If I Can’t Have You in 1978, which became part of the soundtrack of the motion picture Saturday Night Fever. Music critics noted the chord progression of Let It Grow is similar to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, something Clapton himself acknowledged. I wonder whether those same critics also worried about the similarity between Stairway and Taurus, the instrumental by Spirit.

The last track I’d like to call out is Steady Rollin’ Man, a song written by Robert Johnson, one of Clapton’s influences. In fact, 30 years later, he would record Me And Mr. Johnson, an entire album dedicated to the delta blues artist. This is another example where Clapton took an old blues tune and gave it new life and a nice groove by speeding it up.

While 461 Ocean Boulevard received mixed reviews from music critics, it became one of Clapton’s most successful albums with strong chart performances in the U.S. and many other countries. In August 1974, it was awarded Gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America. And, oh yes, it’s also listed at no. 409 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of the 500 Albums Of All Time – the same publication whose critic ripped it apart when it originally appeared.

This post wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the musicians who helped Clapton record the album. Some critics felt they were less than capable – yes, there was no John Mayall, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce or Duane Allman, but to say that Clapton’s band essentially was mediocre is simply ridiculous, in my opinion.

The musicians included Dick Sims (keyboards), George Terry (guitar, vocals), Carl Radle (bass), Jamie Oldacker (drums, percussion), Al Jackson Jr. (drums on Give Me Strength and Albhy Galuten (synthesizer, piano, clavichord). In addition to Elliman, Tom Bernfield and Marcy Levy were backing vocalists.

Last but not least, the album was produced by studio wizard Tom Dowd. This certainly helps explain the great sound.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Bob Dylan & The Band/I Shall Be Released

Yesterday (April 7) was the 40th anniversary of the release of The Last Waltz, the triple LP album by The Band and soundtrack to the 1978 concert film directed by Martin Scorsese. The album and picture document the group’s official farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976.

The Bob Dylan tune I Shall Be Released was the closing number of the official show. In addition to Dylan and The Band, it featured other high caliber guests, who had performed earlier during the show, including Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond.

Many critics have called the film one of the best rock concert movies; however, not everybody agreed. Notably, The Band’s Levon Helm charged the film portrays The Band as sidemen of Robbie Robertson. He also called it “the biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened to the Band,” adding he and the other group members Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel didn’t earn a dime from the film and the soundtrack album.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Clips & Pix: George Harrison/Taxman

I just returned from the movies where I watched Concert For George, a documentary about a fantastic George Harrison tribute show Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne put together with Dhani Harrison and Olivia Harrison at the magnificent Royal Albert Hall in London on November 29, 2002. I could easily go on raving about it. For now all I want to say is, if you’re a fan of Harrison’s music, you should absolutely catch this film, which is available on DVD and is still on in certain select movie theaters. For listings you can check here.

With my mind still very much set on Harrison, undoubtedly because of the amazing documentary, I’m publishing my third and last post (promise!) to celebrate what would have been his 75th birthday today (February 25). The above clip of Taxman is from a concert in Japan in December 1991, which Harrison conducted as part of a joint tour with Eric Clapton. The tour was also documented with the double album Live In Japan that came out in July 1992.

Taxman is one of three Harrison compositions that appear on Revolver, The Beatles’ seventh studio album released in August 1966. His two other contributions for that record were Love You To and I Want To Tell You.

Sources: Concert For George official website, Wikipedia, YouTube

Concert For George Premieres On Big Screen And Vinyl

Celebration of Harrison’s 75th birthday with premiere of 2002 commemorative concert in select movie theaters and special audio reissue

This Sunday, February 25 George Harrison would have turned 75 years. Sadly, he passed away from cancer on November 29, 2001 at the age of 58 – I can’t believe it’s been more than 16 years! Exactly one year after Harrison’s untimely death, a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London celebrated his life and music. That commemorative event, which had been available on DVD and CD, is now being shown in select movie theaters nationwide and today for the first time appeared as a 4-LP vinyl box reissue. Here’s a nice clip of the unveiling of the box.

The concert was organized by Harrison’s widow Olivia and son Dhani. Longtime friends Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne served as musical directors and performed during the show. Some of the other participating music artists included Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Billy Preston, guitarist Albert Lee, Procul Harum lead vocalist and pianist Gary Brooker, session musican Klaus Voorman and Dhani.

Before the above artists came on stage, Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Harrison’s mentor Ravi Shankar, opened the event with a special composition by her father, presented together with a 16-piece orchestra of Indian musicians. Afterwards, surviving members of the Monty Python troupe performed comedy skits to acknowledge Harrison’s well-known sense of humor.

Following are a three clips from the concert. The first is a beautiful version of Harrison’s second song that appeared on a record by The BeatlesI Need You from Help!, performed by Petty and Heartbreakers.

The second clip is White Album gem While My Guitar Gently Weeps, featuring Clapton on lead vocals and guitar, backed by McCartney, Starr, Lee, Lynne and Dhani, among others. While it is probably impossible to beat the tune’s rendition and Prince solo performed during the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction show, it’s a pretty solid performance.

I also came across the following clip, showing Billy Preston singing My Sweet Lord, backed by the above other musicians. The tune was Harrison’s first big post-Beatles hit, which appeared on his solo debut album All Things Must Pass. Unfortunately, the quality of the video isn’t great but the audio is decent.

“We will always celebrate George’s birthday and this year we are releasing Concert for George in a very special package in memory of a special man,” Olivia said in a statement.

In addition to the vinyl set, the reissue is available in four other formats: 2-CD + 2-Blu-Rays Combo Pack, 2-CD + 2-DVD Combo Pack, 2-CD Pack and, I suppose for the true die-hard fans, as a limited Deluxe Box Set, including four 180-gram audiophile LPs, 2 CDs, 2 DVDs and 2 Blu-rays, a 12”x12” hard-bound 60-page book, plus a piece from the original hand-painted on-stage tapestry used as the backdrop at the Royal Albert Hall concert. The recording of the concert also premiered on music streaming services today.

The film that captured the concert was directed by David Leland and produced by Ray Cooper, Olivia Harrison and Jon Kamen. All profits from the sale of Concert for George products will go to The Material World Charitable Foundation, founded by George Harrison in 1973.

Sources: Wikipedia, Concert For George official website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

Tom Dowd, Humble Music Genius Behind The Scenes

Recording engineer and producer shaped sound of some of greatest music recorded during second half of 20th century

This post was inspired by Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music, one of the most fascinating music documentaries I recently watched. Before getting to it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Music Enthusiast who recommended the film to me.

Created by Mark Moormann, the documentary, which premiered at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and was a 2005 Grammy Award nominee, tells the fascinating story of Tom Dowd, a recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records. Over a 50-plus-year career that started in the 1940s, this man worked with an amazing array of artists, including John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Bobby Darin, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Booker T. & The M.G.sEric Clapton, Cream, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the list goes on and on. During that period, Dowd also advanced studio techniques that would revolutionize recording.

Tom Dowd and Ray Charles
Tom Dowd with Ray Charles

Dowd was born on October 20, 1925 in New York City. From the beginning of his life, he was exposed to music. His mother was an opera singer, while his dad worked as a concertmaster. While growing up, Dowd learned various instruments, including the piano, tuba, violin and string bass. After high school, he continued his musical education at City College of New York. During that time, Dowd also played in a band at Columbia University and became a conductor. Undoubtedly, all of this contributed to his great ear for music, which would come in handy for his later professional work in music.

Interestingly, Dowd’s path could have been very different. At 18, he was drafted into the military and through his work at the physics laboratory at Columbia University became involved in the Manhattan Project – yep that project, which developed the atomic bomb! Dowd planned to become a nuclear physicist after finishing his assignment. There was only one problem: His secret research for the military had been much more advanced than the university’s curriculum. So he decided against pursuing studies in nuclear physics and instead got a job at a classical recording studio in New York, before starting his longtime career with Atlantic Records.

Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler
Tom Dowd (left) with Jerry Wexler

In addition to helping shape the sound of some of the most amazing music recorded during the second half of the 20th century, Dowd was instrumental to drive innovation in the studio. He convinced Jerry Wexler, a partner in Atlantic Records, to install an Ampex eight-track recorder, putting the company on the cutting edge in recording technology. Dowd also popularized stereophonic sound and pioneered the use of linear channel faders on audio mixers as opposed to rotary controls. He then became a master in operating the linear channel faders, almost as if he was playing a keyboard!

Initially, various of the musicians were skeptical or even hostile when they saw Dowd. During the documentary, Eric Clapton said, “To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t interested in people like that.” Pretty much along the same lines, Gregg Allman noted, “Suddenly, you get to the studio, and there is a new guy there critiquing all this stuff, and you think, ‘where did he come from?'”

But when they realized what kind of artists Dowd had recorded in the past, how much he knew about music (likely, more than they did all combined!), and what he could do at the mixer, they listened. Heck, Dowd even managed to suggest to Ginger Baker, who undoubtedly is one of the best rock drummers but not exactly a warm fellow, the drum groove for Sunshine Of Your Love! The fact that all these musicians put their big egos aside and listened to this gentle recording engineer is truly remarkable.

Tom Dowd and Duane Allman
Tom Dowd (second from left) and Duane Allman working on final master mix-down of Layla

Dowd passed away from emphysema at the age of 77 on October 27, 2007 in Florida, shortly after the above documentary had been finished. In 2012, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – better late than never, I suppose! One can only speculate what would have happened to Layla by Derek and The Dominos, Sunshine Of Your Love by Cream and so many other great recordings Dowd impacted!

Following are two video clips. First up is the trailer to the documentary, which in addition to Dowd includes commentary from Ray Charles, Clapton, Allman and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. Listening to the beginning of the clip when Charles is taking about the importance of sound is priceless in and of itself. I also recommend watching the remainder and hear all the other people talk about Dowd. It becomes obvious how much they revered him!

Here is how Dowd summarizes his amazing experience with artists from the ’50’s to the ’80s and the evolution of recording technology. I just find it fascinating and could listen to the man for hours!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dowd was his modesty. In the documentary, there is a scene where he notes that while he had worked with all these artists, he wasn’t a millionaire – far from it! Obviously, many albums these artists released became big-time sellers. But apparently, money didn’t matter to Dowd. Instead, it was all about the music. I think his following statement sums it up perfectly: “Music has been very kind to me over the years.” Boy, the music industry could need visionsaries like Tom Dowd these days!

Sources: Wikipedia, Tom Dowd And The Language Of Music (Documentary, Mark Moorman, 2003), YouTube