On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 27

I know there is a certain degree of arbitrariness to look at happenings throughout rock music history on a specific date. But even as I’m putting together this 28th installment of the recurrent feature, I’m still intrigued with it. I guess in theory this leaves me with 337 remaining dates to explore – but one step, or perhaps I should say date, at a time!

1956: Heartbreak Hotel, one of the coolest tunes by Elvis Presley, was released as the first single on his new record label RCA Victor. Credited to him, Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, the track climbed to no. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100, Cashbox Top Singles Chart and the Country and Western Chart. It became Presley’s first million-seller and one of the most commercially successful singles of the year. I always loved the double bass and the guitar solo in that tune. Here is a nice clip.

1964: The Beatles, or “Les Beatles” as they were called in France, played their 11th date at the Olympia Theatre in Paris as part of a residency in the French capital at the time. According to The Beatles Bible, the set list included eight tunes: From Me To You, Roll Over Beethoven, She Loves You, This Boy, Boys, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Twist And Shoot and Long Tall Sally. Unless the video below is mislabeled, I Saw Her Standing There was part of the set as well. This would make sense, since the song was one of The Fab Four’s concert staples.

1971: David Bowie visited the U.S. for the first time. While he wasn’t allowed to perform due to work permit restrictions, his record label had urged him to go there on a publicity tour to support his latest album The Man Who Sold The World, which had come out in November 1970. But not all of America was ready for the androgynous image Bowie was cultivating at the time and the dress he was wearing. A post on Live For Live Music quotes him as recalling, “In Texas, one guy pulled a gun and called me a fag. But I thought the dress looked beautiful.” Sadly, one could picture the same scene these days.

David Bowie In Dress

1973: Superstition, one of the defining songs by Stevie Wonder, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by him, it was the lead single from Talking Book, his 15th studio album released in October 1972. It also topped the soul singles chart and became his first no. 1 single since Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours in August 1970. The tune’s signature funky riff was played by Wonder on a Hohner Clavinet C. Jeff Beck, a great admirer of Wonder, came up with the cool opening drum beat. Here’s a nice clip from a live performance on the German TV show Beat-Club. While I love the horns on the studio recording, I think the backing vocalists do a great job singing the part!

Sources: This Day In Music.com, This Day In Rock, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Live For Live Music, Wikipedia, YouTube


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 Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Gladys 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 Davis, Aretha Franklin, B.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.

Apollo Theater Historic Image

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.

Aretha Franklin at Apollo Theater

The theater reopened under new management in 1978 and 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 Mary 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, the Apollo Theater continues to be a important cultural institution, attracting an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. Music remains at the core of its offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

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

What I’ve Been Listening To: Stevie Wonder/Talking Book

Stevie Wonder’s 15th studio album is one of the many gems in his incredible catalog.

When it comes to an artist like Stevie Wonder, who has written, produced and released so much amazing music throughout a 50-year-plus career, it’s hard to decide which album to highlight. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons I picked Talking Book is Superstition, one of my all-time favorite tunes.

Various things amaze me about Wonder’s 15th studio album, which was released in Oct 1972. Even though he was only 22 years when he recorded it, Wonder already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. He also took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, Wonder called Talking Book a turning point, “his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.”

But Gordy did convince Wonder to record one song himself, instead of giving it to his friend Jeff Beck: Superstition. And when you hear the tune’s intro, it’s not hard to see why Wonder had Beck in mind – it sounds very much like a guitar riff. In fact, I initially thought it was an electric guitar altered with some sound effect. Instead, Wonder used a Clavinet, an electrically amplified clavichord, and created a cool sound nobody had ever heard before.

Stevie Wonder_Talking Book Vinyl Side 2

Superstition came to Wonder while touring with The Rolling Stones. “The first thing that I put down were the drums and then after that I put the Clavinet down, and really, I just starting singing the melody,” he told NPR. “I think that the reason that I talked about being superstitious is because I really didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe in the different things that people say about breaking glasses or the number 13 is bad luck, and all those various things. And to those, I said, ‘When you believe in things you don’t understand, then you suffer.'”

Wonder’s drums and the Clavinet, together with the tenor saxophone and trumpet parts played by Trevor Laurence and Steve Madaio, respectively, give Superstition a killer funk groove that immediately invites you to move. The tune, which became the album’s lead single, hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973, and climbed to no. 11 in the UK in Feb that year. In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked it 73 in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Stevie Wonder_Talking Book Vinyl Side 1

Another standout on the album is the opener, You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder gets some support on vocals from singers Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the second single from the album and Wonder’s third no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won Wonder the Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder follows contemporary artists like Marvin Gave, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City. An excerpt: Your name is big brother/You say that you’re watching me on the tele/Seeing me go nowhere/Your name is big brother/You say that you’re tired of me protesting/Children die everyday/My name is nobody/But I can’t wait to see your face inside my door ooh…The song is also notable for Wonder’s use of a Moog bass synthesizer and a drum from West Africa – another testament to his fascination with new sounds.

Stevie Wonder

“I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”

Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album Music of My Mind. A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades, Clavinet, Moog bass synthesizer, TONTO synthesizer and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

The album has been well received by music critics. A Rolling Stone review by Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”

Here is a clip of a fantastic live performance of Superstition.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, YouTube