Sunday, October 20, 2013

Don't Know Much About History

 But I am still learning thanks to the latest wave of books, stage shows and documentaries about rock and blues music.  This weekend is the opening in D.C. of the documentary, “Muscle Shoals” from director Greg Camalier. Most of us know of the Alabama town where The Rolling Stones recorded  “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” but the history of producer Rick Hall and his house musicians, The Swampers, also includes some major milestones.

Percy Sledge was an unknown amateur when Hall got him in for his first recording session. The result: “When A Man Loves a Woman.” Duane Allman pitched his tent in the parking lot until they let him sit in on sessions, including one with Wilson Pickett doing “Hey Jude.” Etta James and Aretha Franklin laid down hit tracks there and Lynyrd Skynyrd came up with “Freebird” while on the banks of the Tennessee River.

A documentary released earlier this year, “Born in Chicago,” looks back at the work of Muddy Waters (“The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll”) Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry and their influence on a younger generation. Marshall Chess, founder of the namesake studio and record label, narrators the film which focuses in part on Mike Bloomfield.  No less an authority than Bob Dylan pays tribute to his standing by describing him as “simply the best guitarist I had ever heard.”

The history lessons continue on stage. In Chicago, the Black Ensemble Theater Company is paying homage  to Curtis Mayfield, lead singer with The Impressions and funk pioneer, with “It’s All Right To Have A Good Time.”  On Broadway the tribute shows to Janis Joplin (Vinyl Stats August 14) and Billie Holiday will be joined by “Beautiful,” the Carole King musical.

In addition to new memoirs from Graham Nash and Neil Young, there are two books out that deal with music that may have changed history and not just music. In Ready for a Brand New Beat, Mark Kurlansky argues that the super hit of 1964, “Dancin’ in the Street” from Martha & The Vandellas became a political anthem that helped spark the social upheaval and urban riots of the sixties.

And did Bruce Springsteen have more to do with the end of the Berlin Wall than Ronald Reagan? Erick Kirschbaum thinks so and outlines his argument in Rocking the Wall.  The date was July 19, 1988 and The Boss was allowed to do a live concert in East Berlin. Between songs, Springsteen, in German, told the crowd of 300,000 (and millions watching on TV),  “I’ve come to play rock and roll for you in the hopes that one day all the barriers will be torn down.” He then launched into “Chimes of Freedom.”

Whether you buy Krischbaum’s thesis or not, it gives new meaning to the Great Man theory of history.