Playing for Change – Reimaging a World Connected by Music

The other day, I came across an amazing video clip featuring Robbie Robertson and a bunch of well-known and to me unknown, yet pretty talented other musicians from all over the world, playing The Weight, one of my favorite tunes by The Band. At first, I only paid attention to their great version of the iconic song and ignored the chiron at the beginning and the end of the clip that notes “Playing for Change.” Then, I noticed other video clips on YouTube, which were also put together by Playing for Change. Finally, I got curious. Who or what is Playing for Change?

It didn’t take long to find their website, which describes their story as follows: Playing For Change is a movement created to inspire and connect the world through music… Playing For Change was born in 2002 as a shared vision between co-founders, Mark Johnson and Whitney Kroenke, to hit the streets of America with a mobile recording studio and cameras in search of inspiration and the heartbeat of the people. This musical journey resulted in the award-winning documentary, “A Cinematic Discovery of Street Musicians.”

PFC Co-Founders
PFC co-founders Mark Johnson & Whitney Kroenke

In 2005, Mark Johnson was walking in Santa Monica, California, when he heard the voice of Roger Ridley singing “Stand By Me.” Roger had so much soul and conviction in his voice, and Mark approached him about performing “Stand By Me” as a Song Around the World. Roger agreed, and when Mark returned with recording equipment and cameras he asked Roger, “With a voice like yours, why are you singing on the streets?” Roger replied, “Man I’m in the Joy business, I come out to be with the people.” Ever since that day the Playing For Change crew has traveled the world recording and filming musicians, creating Songs Around the World, and building a global family.

Creating Songs Around the World inspired us to unite many of the greatest musicians we met throughout our journey and form the Playing For Change Band. These musicians come from many different countries and cultures, but through music they speak the same language. Songs Around The World The PFC Band is now touring the world and spreading the message of love and hope to audiences everywhere.

I realize the above may embellish things a bit; still, PFC sounds like an intriguing concept. They also created the Playing for Change Foundation, a separate nonprofit organization that is funded through donations and supports arts and music programs for children around the world. Based on the foundation’s website, it looks like a legitimate organization. That being said, this isn’t an endorsement. Let’s get back to what originally brought me here – recorded musicians all over the world performing the same song and everything being neatly put together in pretty compelling video clips. Before getting to the above mentioned Robbie Roberson clip, let’s take a look at some of PFC’s other videos.

Walking Blues (Son House)

Walking Blues was written and first recorded by delta blues musician Son House in 1930. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and other blues musicians recorded their own versions. This clip features Kevin Roosevelt Moore, aka Keb’ Mo’, along with other musicians from Argentina, South Africa, Spain and Morocco. Apparently, the clip was put together in honor of Johnson’s birthday. Check it out!

Soul Rebel (Bob Marley)

Written by Bob Marley, Soul Rebel is the opener to Soul Rebels, the second studio album by Bob Marley and the Wailers, which appeared in December 1970. This clip features Bunny Wailer, an original member of the Wailers, French guitarist Manu Chao and Jamaican reggae singer Bushman, along with other musicians from Jamaica, Spain, Morocco, Cuba, Argentina and the U.S. Feel free to groove along!

Listen to the Music (Tom Johnston)

Listen to the Music is a classic by The Doobie Brothers from their second studio album Toulouse Street released in July 1972. It was written by guitarist and vocalist Tom Johnston, one of the band’s founding members. Apart from Johnston and fellow Doobies Patrick Simmons and John McFee, the clip features other musicians from Venezuela, India, Brazil, Lebanon, Japan, Argentina, Senegal, Congo, South Africa and the U.S., including a gospel choir from Mississippi. This is just a joy to watch!

All Along the Watchtower (Bob Dylan)

While perhaps best known by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, All Along the Watchtower was written by Bob Dylan. He first recorded it for John Wesley Harding, his eighth studio album from December 1967. Check out this riveting take featuring Cyril Neville of The Neville Brothers, John Densmore of The Doors and Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule, along with other musicians from Italy, Zimbabwe, Lebanon, Niger, Ghana, India, Japan, Mali and the U.S. The latter include singers and dancers from the Lakota, a native American tribe that is part of the Great Sioux Nation. This is just mind-boggling to watch!

The Weight (Robbie Robertson)

And finally, here comes the crown jewel that inspired the post: The Weight written by Robbie Robertson, and first recorded for the debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink, released in July 1968. This clip was co-produced by PFC co-founder Mark Johnson and Robbie’s son Sebastian Johnson to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song. And it’s quite a star-studded affair: In addition to Robertson, the clip features Ringo Starr, blues guitarist Marcus King, roots rockers Larkin Poe and country-rock guitarist Lucas Nelson, along with other musicians from Italy, Japan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kingdom of Bahrain, Spain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica – what a beautiful tribute to this great tune. Just watch the smile on Robertson’s face at the end. He knows how figgin’ awesome this came out – priceless!

PFC clearly has their go-to musicians in each country, and they’re not hobby musicians. Based on PFC’s website, all musicians are professionals who appear to be recognized within their countries. While as such one could argue PFC doesn’t seem to use amateur/ hobby musicians, it doesn’t take away anything of the concept’s beauty, in my view. Most of their videos capture songs performed by individual artists from different countries or by the PFC band. But it’s the song-around-the-world videos I find most impressive. You can watch all of PFC’s clips on their YouTube channel.

Sources: Wikipedia; Playing For Change website; Playing for Change Foundation website; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 12

This may still be a new year and we’re even in a new decade, but some things don’t change, at least not on this blog. One of them is this recurring rock music history feature. By now, I guess I must have put together more than 30 installments; but as a music nerd, this tells me I have more than 300 other dates left to cover! Let’s start with January 12 and the debut single by a then-teenaged Etta James.

1955: The first single by Etta James, The Wallflower, was released. It was co-written by James, who was only 16 years at the time, together with Johnny Otis and Hank Ballard. While due to the lyrics the song’s original version was considered “too risque” to be played on pop radio, it became a hit on the Billboard R&B Chart, which it topped for four weeks. The same year, the tune was covered as Dance With Me, Henry by Georgia Gibbs for the pop market. James released her own cover version of Dance With Me, Henry in 1958. Here’s the scandalous original tune, for which James received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2008.

1968: George Harrison recorded the origins of what became The Inner Light at a studio in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai). He had traveled there to record the soundtrack for Wonderwall, a psychedelic picture by Joe Massot co-starring 21-year-old Jane Birkin. According to The Beatles Bible, by January 12, Harrison had almost completed the work on the soundtrack and found himself with additional studio time he did not want to go to waste. He decided to record some additional ragas, one of which formed the basis for The Inner Light. The tune was completed at London’s Abbey Road Studios in early February of 1968 and appeared as the B-side to the single Lady Madonna. I think it’s the most beautiful Indian music-influenced tune Harrison wrote. I also love the lines, The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows. This is how I often feel when it comes to exploring music!

1969: Led Zeppelin released their mighty eponymous debut album in the U.S. The recording took place at Olympic Studios in London in September and October that year. Since the band had not secured a contract yet, the album was self-produced by Jimmy Page. He also paid the £1,782 for the 36 hours of studio time it took to complete the sessions. A key reason for the short recording time was a well-rehearsed band that had just performed as the New Yardbirds during a Scandinavian tour. Much of the music was recorded live in-studio. While Led Zeppelin initially received some poor reviews, the album was an instant chart success, peaking at no. 10 on the Billboard 200 and climbing to no. 6 on the UK Albums Chart where it spent a total of 71 weeks. Here’s the great opener Good Times Bad Times, which is credited to Page, John Paul Jones and Jon Bonham.

1974: The Steve Miller Band abracadabra scored their first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with The Joker. Co-written by Eddie Curtis, Ahmet Ertegün and Steve Miller, the tune also was the title track of the band’s 8th studio album that appeared in October 1973. Ertegün is best-known as co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, and I admittedly had no idea he also was involved in writing classic blues and pop songs! The farther one travels…More than 16 years later in September 1990, The Joker again flew like an eagle and rose to the top in the UK, after the tune had been used in a Levi’s TV ad. According to Wikipedia, this makes it the single with the longest gap between transatlantic chart-toppers – wow, it’s amazing what people track!

1993: The eighth annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place in Los Angeles. Honored inductees included Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, Etta James, Van Morrison, Sly & the Family Stone, Ruth Brown and Cream, who reunited for the event for the first time in 23 years. And what would the spectacle be without some drama? John Fogerty refused to perform with his former CCR bandmates Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. But fans still got to hear some CCR music. Fogerty recruited session musicians on drums and bass, and also got some help from Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson. Here’s Cream’s performance of Sunshine of Your Love from that night. Boy, did Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker sound mighty sweet! While apparently Bruce and Baker were interested in touring at the time, solo projects and I imagine some other issues prevented reunion shows until early May 2005 when Cream performed a series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfascts Music History Calendar; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: August 28

1964: The Beatles performed the first of two gigs at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York during the U.S. leg of their world tour that year. They played their standard 12-song set of original tunes largely drawing from the A Hard Day’s Night album, as well as rock & roll covers. The tunes included Twist And ShoutYou Can’t Do ThatAll My LovingShe Loves YouThings We Said TodayRoll Over BeethovenCan’t Buy Me LoveIf I FellI Want To Hold Your HandBoysA Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. After the show, The Fab Four met Bob Dylan who visited them in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould noted the musical and cultural significance of the meeting, saying within six months, “Lennon would be making records on which he openly imitated Dylan’s nasal drone, brittle strum, and introspective vocal persona”; and six months after that, Dylan began performing with a backing band and electric instrumentation, and “dressed in the height of Mod fashion.” While the fact that great music artists influence each other isn’t exactly surprising, based on The Beatles Bible’s account of that night, it seems to me John, Paul, George and Ringo primarily got stoned with Dylan who brought along some grass to smoke. Not really sure how much their condition allowed them to have meaningful conversations about music. Here’s some footage from the Forest Hills show, a great illustration of Beatlemania, which makes me wonder why The Beatles didn’t stop touring earlier.

1965: Exactly one year after The Beatles, Bob Dylan took the stage at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, marking the first night of a 40-date North American tour. Following a solo section, Dylan played an electric set. This all happened only about a month after he had rattled the “folkies” at the Newport Folk Festival. On that night in Forest Hills, Dylan’s electric backing band featured guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm, who were then associated with a band called The Hawks, a predecessor to The BandHarvey Brooks (bass) and Al Kooper (organ) rounded out the line-up. After the first two shows of the tour, Robertson and Helm insisted that their mates from The Hawks join Dylan’s backing band: Rick Danko (bass), Garth Hudson (keyboards) and Richard Manuel (drums). Dylan agreed, and until May 1966, they would be billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. Here’s a clip of Like A Rolling Stone, which supposedly was captured from the Forest Hills gig. The sound quality is horrible, but, hey, it’s mighty Dylan and it’s historical!

1968: Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth and second-to-last studio album Bookends hit no. 1 on the UK Official Albums Chart Top 100, starting a five-week run in the top spot there. Apart from the title track, the record featured gems like America and the no. 1 U.S. single Mrs. Robinson. Written by Paul Simon, the tune had become famous the previous year when it had been included in the American motion picture The Graduate. I’ve always loved the bluesy touch of that song.

1972: Alice Cooper topped the British singles chart with School’s Out, scoring his only no. 1 hit anywhere in the world. Credited to Cooper (lead vocals) and the members of his band at the time, Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Glen Buxton (lead guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass, backing vocals) and Neal Smith (drums, backing vocals), the tune was the title track of the band’s fifth studio album released in June 1972. School’s Out also became Cooper’s biggest chart success in the U.S., peaking at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Songfacts, Cooper during a 2008 interview with Esquire said, “When we did ‘School’s Out,’ I knew we had just done the national anthem. I’ve become the Francis Scott Key of the last day of school.” It’s also safe to assume, Cooper shocked some school principals and parents.

1981: British DJ, producer and band manager Guy Stevens passed away at the age of 38 years from an overdose of prescription drugs he was taking to reduce his alcohol dependency – yikes! Among others, Stevens gave Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople their distinct names. He also co-produced The Clash’s fifth studio album London Calling from December 1979, together with Mick Jones, the band’s co-founder, lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist. Stevens also brought Chuck Berry to the U.K. for his first tour there in 1963. He also was the president of the Chuck Berry Appreciation Society. According to Wikipedia, Stevens introduced lyricist Keith Reid to keyboarder Gary Brooker and told Reid at a party that a friend had turned “a whiter shade of pale”. Supposedly, these words inspired the song with the same title that was subsequently recorded by Brooker’s newly formed band Procol Harum and became a major international hit in 1967.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, Songfacts, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Bonnie Raitt/Slipstream

I think Slipstream is one of the gems in Bonnie Raitt’s close to 40-year recording career. I hadn’t heard the album in a while until this morning. Afterwards, I spontaneously decided to cover it.

Raitt is one of my favorite music artists, and I’ve written about her before. If you’re curious about her background, you can read more here. In this post, I’d like to focus on the music from Slipstream, Raitt’s 16th studio album released in April 2012. It came seven years after the predecessor Souls Alike, the last album for her longtime record company Capitol Records. The album is the first issued on her independent label Redwing Records, which she launched in 2011.

Slipstream kicks off strongly with the groovy Used To Rule A World. The tune also became one of two tracks that appeared separately as a single. It was written by singer-songwriter and session multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramblett. In addition to Raitt, he has played with the likes of Gregg Allman, Robbie Robertson and Steve Winwood. Apart from Raitt’s funky guitar, I particularly dig the Hammond B3 part performed by Mike Finnegan. He’s another session musician with an impressive resume, including Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Etta James and Crosby, Stills and Nash, to name some.

Right Down The Line, the second single off the album, is a nice cover of a tune by Gerry Rafferty. The Scottish singer-songwriter included it on his sophomore album City To City from January 1978. That record is best known for the mega hit Baker Street, which makes me want to listen to the song and other music from Rafferty. I haven’t done that in a long time either – could become a separate blog topic in the future!

Down To You is another tune for which Bramblett got a credit. The other co-writers are George Marinelli, who also plays guitar, as well as Raitt who wrote the lyrics – her only credit on the album. But if you interpret songs, sing and play slide guitar like Raitt, I think it becomes a minor detail whether or not you actually write the songs. Marinelli, a founding member of Bruce Hornsby and The Range, has been part of Raitt’s band since 1993.

Raitt slows things down on Not Cause I Wanted To, a ballad about the breakup of a relationship. I wonder whether the tune, which was co-written by Al Anderson and Bonnie Bishop, has some autobiographic connection. According to Wikipedia, Raitt’s marriage to actor Michael O’Keefe ended in divorce in late 1999, apparently because their careers caused them to spend much time apart.

The last tune I’d like to call out is Standing In The Doorway, another track on the quieter side. It was written by Bob Dylan, who included it on this 30th studio album Time Out Of Mind from September 1997. Interestingly, Slipstream also features another Dylan cover from the same record, Million Miles. When covering songs, Raitt oftentimes makes them her own, but in this case, she chose to stay closely to the original – in any case, a beautiful take!

Slipstream entered the Billboard 200 at no. 6, making it Raitt’s highest-charting album in the U.S. in 18 years since 1994’s chart-topper Longing In Their Hearts. She also won Best Americana Album for Slipstream at the 2013 Grammy Awards.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bonnie Raitt website, YouTube

My Playlist: Aretha Franklin

Earlier this year, I got very close to seeing Aretha Franklin live at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. I had already purchased two tickets and was thrilled to finally experience who I felt was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. Another cool thing was that the March 25th show would have coincided with her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

On very short notice, the concert was cancelled due to an unidentified illness. When media reported shortly thereafter that Franklin’s doctor had ordered three months of absolute rest, I didn’t have a good feeling. After all, this wasn’t the first time she had dealt with health issues. Yesterday, the Queen of Soul passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer, barely five months after her birthday and what I’m sure would have been an unforgettable performance.

FRANKLIN
Aretha Franklin performing at the VH1 Divas 2001

Given the vast number of obituaries that have been published since news about her untimely death broke yesterday morning, I’m not going to develop yet another one. Instead, I’d like to focus on what will remain – an amazing amount of music by an amazing performer, released over a 60-year-plus professional career.

Based on Wikipedia, Franklin’s enormous catalog includes 42 studio albums, six live albums, 131 singles and numerous compilations. While it’s obviously impossible to capture all of that music in one playlist while keeping it to no more than 10 tracks, I tried to come up with tunes that span her entire recording period.

Where to start the undertaking? Well, how about Franklin’s studio debut Songs Of Faith from 1956, which was recorded live at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Here’s While The Blood Runs Warm. Franklin was only 14 years old at the time, but you can already hear her powerful voice. This is giving me goosebumps!

Franklin’s fourth studio album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin from August 1962 became her first charting record, reaching no. 69 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Here’s Try A Little Tenderness, a tune I dig, written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods, and first recorded by the Ray Nobel Orchestra in December 1932. It has since been covered by many other artists, who in addition to Franklin most notably included Otis Redding in 1966.

Respect is perhaps the best-known Aretha Franklin song. The signature tune, which was written and first released by Otis Redding in 1965, appeared on her 11th studio album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You from March 1967. The song was Franklin’s first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, as well as the Cash Box chart. The record became her highest charting to date, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard album chart and topping the magazine’s R&B chart.

Another Franklin signature song undoubtedly is Think, co-written by her and her manager and first husband Ted White. The feminism anthem appeared on her 15th studio album Aretha Now in June 1968 and was also released separately as a single in May of the same year. White’s involvement in the song’s writing looks ironical, given Franklin divorced him in 1969, following reports of domestic abuse.

This Girl’s In Love With You was Franklin’s first ’70s album appearing in January that year, and her 18th studio album overall. Intriguingly, it includes the first commercial release of Let It Be, preceding The Beatles’ version by two months, and the following take of The Weight written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Oh, and if the guy on the slide guitar somehow seems to sound familiar, it was Duane Allman. I think not only is this soulful cover smoking hot, but it’s also a great illustration of Franklin’s great ability to take songs written by others and make them her own.

In February 1974, Franklin released her 22nd studio album Let Me Be In Your Life.  The second single from that record was Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), co-written by Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder and Morris Broadnax. It was first recorded by Wonder in 1967, though he didn’t release his version until 1977. The tune became a million-seller for Franklin, topping the Billboard R&B chart and peaking at no. 2 on the Hot 100. It was her last major ’70s hit.

Jumping to the ’80s, Franklin collaborated on a number of songs with various other artists during that decade, such as George Benson, Elton John, George Michael and Eurhythmics. The tune I’d like to highlight in this context is Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, another feminist anthem that Franklin recorded with Eurhythmics. Apart from appearing as a single in October 1985, the tune was included on Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and the British pop duo’s Be Yourself Tonight studio albums. Co-written by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, the song reached no. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 9 in the U.K. on the Official Singles Chart. The track proves that Franklin could even make an ’80s commercial pop tune sound pretty hot.

A Rose Is Still A Rose, released in March 1998, was Franklin’s last studio album that reached Gold certification and became her best-selling record of the ’90s. Following is the title track, which was written by Lauryn Hill and is yet another feminist-based tune. It also appeared as a single one month ahead of the album, reaching no. 1, 5 and 26 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop/Rap Songs and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

Jumping to the current century, in September 2003, Franklin’s 38th studio record So Damn Happy appeared. It included Wonderful, a song co-written by Aleese Simmons and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, which won Franklin the 2003 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

Franklin’s 42nd and final studio album A Brand New Me was released in November 2017. It featured archival vocal recordings from her years with Atlantic Records combined with new arrangements by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and newly recorded backing vocals. Here’s I Say A Little Prayer, which Burt Bacharach and Hal David co-wrote for Dionne Warwick who released it in 1967 as as single. It was also included on her eighth studio release The Windows Of The World. Franklin originally recorded the tune for the above noted Aretha Now album and released it as a single in July 1968, scoring a no. 3 and 10 on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

As previously noted, the goal of the above playlist was to be career-spanning. As such, not all of the songs are among my favorite tunes. But at the same time, I feel that because of her powerful voice and soulful delivery, Franklin simply never sang a bad song in the first place – at least I haven’t heard one yet. Two other artists who come to my mind in this context are Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. It’s a rare quality that is going to be part of Franklin’s legacy.

Sources: Wikipedia, 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