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

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