Monday, February 21, 2011

Session Man to Star

Which Number One hit of the late 1950s had a one-word lyric?

Come on give it a shot (answer to follow).

I got interested in this subject when old friend and guitarist John Mergendoller sent me this trivia from his flatpick list serve. Session players and their careers are intriguing because of their non-linear paths. In this case the song created by session men and written by sax player Chuck Rio stayed on the charts for 19 weeks, sold six million copies and won a Grammy. Although some may call it an instrumental, we all remember it for the lyric:


Among those who later played with The Champs were Jim Seals and Dash Crofts and a young guitarist who also toured with the Beach Boys when Brian Wilson decided to stay at home: Glen Campbell.

In addition to his Rand-McNally hits (Galveston, Phoenix, Wichita and Southern Nights), he  got his own television series, his own golf tournament (in LA) and eventually his own theater in Branson, Mo. He also appeared in the first True Grit film. He learned how to do supporting roles back in his session days, I imagine, which must have been pretty heady.

According to the R&R encyclopedia, he played for Frank Sinatra, Rick Nelson, Johnny Cash and the Mamas and Papas, as well several of Phil Spector's bands who created the walls of sound. His session buddies, known as "The Wrecking Crew," included another future star, piano player Leon Russell.

Glen's stats are impressive, 70 albums, 45 million in sales and in 1967 he won four Grammys, including album of the year in the pop division and a second for a different album in the country category.
Take that Lady Gaga!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Grammy Gimmicks

In recent years, I had given up on the Grammys…too much hip-hop, rap and obnoxious commercials but this year for journalistic reasons I decided to stay with it.
What I found was another entertainment event midway between the SuperBowl and the Oscars that was a made-for-media event which the media celebrates and the celebrities mine for advertising opportunities. Is Taylor Swift selling hand crème or downloads. Eminem should use some of that ice tea he’s hawking to put out the fires on the stage behind Rhianna. Of course, the merging of content and advertising in an M.C. Escher miasma is nothing new.  But it certainly seems to hit new heights around this time of year.

The show came off more than a little schizophrenic. Are we celebrating new music or parading out aging rock stars in hopes that the boomers will show up at Target tomorrow? Is it a music show or a full employment program for dancers, choreograhers and lighting designers in Los Angeles? It is an homage to the power of smoke and mirrors and if they can’t figure out who the real stars of 2011 are, “give ‘em the ole razzle dazzle.”
First put an anchor blonde in a corner to endlessly tease the stars of yesteryear (Dylan, Jagger, Streisand) then when they do show up for their three minutes, surround them with masses of musicians and back up singers.  At least Babs and Bob sang their own songs(in Bob’s case we use the term loosely but if you don’t know the words to Maggie’s Farm, it’s too late for you). And Mick’s tribute to Solomon Burke has him doing a song that for the last thirty years has been associated with Jake and Elwood and their Fabulous Show Band.

What was up with the mini-mosh pit populated by those people who stand up to shake Jay Leno’s hand at the open of the Tonight Show? I hope they got paid good money to stand there holding their hands in the air and blocking low-angle camera shots.  Often the random hands looked like someone reaching for help from quicksand (or was that a promo for Survivor XXX?)

The awards all seemed to average out with something for everyone (as usual) but I was struck by Best Rock Album nominees: Jeff Beck, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty and Neil Young.
And the winner was:  Muse.  Of course they had just performed a song with an amazing light show. (Dylan got no light show or audience cutaways but Streisand got a symphony orchestra.)  I will check out the new albums by some of the also rans.

I like watching Lady Gaga and Katy Perry; they put on great shows.  But I don’t seem to be listening to their music.

Can it really be they have been doing the Grammys for 53 years? Was  Volare  the first record of the year? And others were Moon River, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Beat It.  This year it was Need You Now which Lady Antebellum informed the audience that they had performed at last year’s Grammys. (?)

Finally I have to say I discovered Arcade Fire this year and really like them….crisp, original and energetic. Of course you could not see them for the fusillade of flashing lights that blinded the audience and the cameras when they performed their first number. They got better treatment on the encore.

“It’s quarter to one and I need to quit now”  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Boomers' First Fad

The first song I ever memorized (of my own volition) came from a television show theme:

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greatest state in the land of the free.
Raised in the woods so's he knew every tree
Killed him a bar when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.

I was reminded of the song and its catchy tune  while watching an episode of Pioneers of Television (PBS) on The Westerns, which were so popular in the 1950s that more than 30 different series hit the airwaves in 1959.

It was five years earlier when Fess Parker created the role of Davy Crockett and created the phenomenon of youngsters all across the country chasing Indians and outlaws through suburban backyards. In a matter of months, 10 million of us bought coonskin caps and some 3,000 other Crockett items that the Walt Disney marketing machine rolled out. The  half a billion dollars we spent  reportedly gave Walt the cash he needed to build Disneyland. Fess Parker (who would later go on to make a mighty fine wine) was so popular that after the Crockett mini series was finished, Disney moved him into the TV series Daniel Boone and sold some more coonskin caps.

One other interesting note from the documentary.  John Wayne turned down the role of Marshal Dillon when Gunsmoke was being moved from radio to television but recommended James Arness, an actor he had under contract at the time. Gunsmoke aired 635 episodes and Arness played Marshall Dillon for nearly 50 years.

Finally, thanks to Garrison Keillor for reminding us that  it was on this day in 1964 that the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, attracting 63 million viewers. That compares to some 111 million who watched that other Sunday night show, the Superbowl. Wonder if there is a prize if you saw both events?  Maybe a coonskin cap.

He took off to Congress an' served a spell,
Fixin' up the governments and laws as well.
Took over Washington so we heered tell,
An' patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell.
Davy, Davy Crockett, seein' his duty clear.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Drummer to the Stars

Lyle Lovett was telling Bob Edwards how much fun he had playing with his Large Band (15 players without horns) when he mentioned Russ Kunkel. I knew Russ had played with a lot of my favorite rock and rollers but I did not realize how many. In fact his name is on  more liner notes than I can count; his Wikipedia entry lists nearly 100 artists he has played with...from Herb Alpert to Warren Zevon. But it is not only the quantity but the quality. He played on some of the best albums of the seventies and eighties.
Kunkel is credited with Carole King (Tapestry), James Taylor (Sweet Baby James), Joni Mitchell (Blue) and Bob Dylan (New Morning). He played on eight Jackson Browne albums, including Running on Empty, as well as with Bob Seger and Linda Ronstadt, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young(in groups and as soloists). Then there is Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and Neil Young. I guess he has some stories from the road and the studio.

Lyle is contributing to a 24-song tribute album to Guy Clark. That's something to look forward to. When he was asked about his novelty songs like "Keep it in the pantry," he told Bob:  "I think it is important to be silly whenever you can."

That seems a good motto for Super Bowl weekend.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Guitar Man

We spent a marvelous Sunday afternoon in the living room of an old family friend listening to a young man named Scott Schwertfeger conjure the most amazing sounds from an acoustic guitar. Perhaps it was the late sun glinting off the snow or the collections of  several generations of family photos surrounding us or the intimacy of such a small audience,  but there was some real magic in Scott’s music.

Even now, listening to his CD, I am pulled into the sounds he makes under the very inadequate rubric of Classical Guitar.  I kept thinking I was watching someone playing the harp because each time a string was plucked, the tone seemed long and full as it ran to the end of the instrument.  As one listener noted, “When I first heard Cielo on the CD, I thought it was two guitars playing.”  Even  straining to watch both his hands at play, you asked: “How did he do that?”

Scott opened with his own composition, then played works by Heitor Villa-Lobos and Andrew York. He paused several times to explain how he could change the sound by the way he placed the capo or tuned the strings (he whipped off a passable Neil Young riff as an example).  You could see why he enjoys teaching (a student, Ed Page, played a short opening set that included some wonderful Berlioz) and that he has a scholar’s affection for the music he plays and the people who created it.

When the youngster in the crowd followed some serious requests with, “Play Free Bird,” Scott came up with the opening chords and then paused to tell a great story about meeting Lynyrd Skynyrd at a hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.  It began in the lobby, with “I’m in a band.”  “I’m in a band.” Then it moved to drinks by the pool and lasted most of the night.  Actually he’s not sure when the party ended but said Skynyrd’s folks were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Scott’s band in his traveling days was Modern Yesterday, whose debut album was produced by David Kershenbaum, who produced the soundtrack for  Last of the Mohicans, among others.

Movies are what I recalled as I listened to his hauntingly beautiful composition, Bull Run, which anchored the concert and his CD. Its mournful, bittersweet melody made feel as if I were watching the closing credits to Cold Mountain.  I hope someday he finds the film with green hills and heartbreaking stories to do it justice.

Scott’s website is  I had a little trouble playing audio there. The Youtube videos work but the audio is tv quality.  The CD, produced by Jeff Bragg  at Jan Nichols’ Broad Run Studio in Sterling, Virginia is first rate.

Seems my rock and roll, big band rut had gotten so deep that I had forgotten the mesmerizing power of one person and one guitar.