Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Howdy, Tex: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part IV

Although he’s largely forgotten today, Joe Tex was a hugely popular R&B singer for about five years
in the late Sixties, notching eight Top Ten hits on the R&B charts between 1964 and 1968, including three Number Ones. Most of his pop success followed in the 1970s, after his R&B career had cooled off a bit. But he was perhaps most famous for his feud with James Brown. Each man claimed the other stole his dance moves and mike-stand tricks, and Brown covered Tex’s “Baby You’re Right,” just after Tex’s version came out, then had the temerity to have the bigger hit with it.

In 1960, Brown cut a duet with Tex’s ex-wife, Bea Ford, a song called “You’ve Got the Power." Then Brown sent Tex a letter saying he was done with Ford, and that Tex could have her back. This prompted one of the greatest answer records of all time: Tex’s “You Keep Her”:

James, I got your letter
It came to me today
You said I could have my baby back
Well, I don’t want her that way
So you keep her

Brown eventually showed up at a nightclub where Otis Redding was singing, while Tex was in the audience, and started firing a shotgun in Tex’s general direction. Several members of the audience were hit while Tex ran outside and hid in the bushes. That appeared to be the end of it, thankfully.

Tex went on to have a handful of crossover pop hits, starting with “Hold What You’ve Got,” which went to Number 5 in 1965. “I Gotcha” went to Number Two in 1972, and after the fluke semi-novelty “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” in 1977, that was it for Joe Tex. He died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of either 47 (per Wikipedia) or 49 (per Billboard).

The Case For Anybody that James Brown considers a rival has to be a pretty great singer, and Tex was. “Hold What You’ve Got” is a great single, as is “I Gotcha,” which Quentin Tarantino featured in Reservoir Dogs. He wrote all of his own material too.

The Case Against Tex never had all that much success on the pop charts – just three Top Ten hits. He didn’t have a particularly long career, either. He didn’t land a hit on even the R&B charts until he had recorded 30 singles and was pushing 30. Then he retired in 1972 to work as an Islamic minister, after having changed his government name to Yusuf Hazziez, although he made a comeback in 1975 before quitting for good in 1981, and then dying very young.

The Cool Factor “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” is a pretty unlikely hit for an Islamic clergyman. Joe Tex (he was born Joseph Arrington in Baytown, Texas) is a great name.

The Verdict Twenty years ago, or even five years ago, Tex would have had a shot. Bobby “Blue” Bland is in, as is Solomon Burke and Percy Sledge, and Joe Tex fits in nicely with that group, although I don't see anything to particularly recommend him above any of those gentlemen. In the current landscape, I can't imagine how he gets in, and as great a singer as he was, I just don’t see the impact or the influence that would warrant the honor. I vote no on Joe Tex.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

Miss You Much: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part III

Here is the list of the artists who have had the most Top Ten hits in what Casey Kasem used to call the rock era:

  • o   Madonna: 38
  • o   Elvis Presley: 36
  • o   The Beatles: 34
  • o   Michael Jackson: 29
  • o   Rihanna: 29
  • o   Stevie Wonder: 28
  • o   Elton John: 27
  • o   Janet Jackson: 27
  • o   Mariah Carey: 27
  • o   The Rolling Stones: 23
  • o   Paul McCartney: 23
  • o   Whitney Houston: 23

That’s 12 artists, eight of whom were stone-cold locks for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and four of whom are women of color, with no overlap between the two groups. Hmmm. (Of course, Rihanna is not yet eligible.) (Also, please note that Paul McCartney has been an integral part of FIFTY-SEVEN Top Ten hits.)

Here’s another fun fact for you: There have been 22 albums that ended up having five Top Ten singles on them. That includes two by Michael Jackson, 16 single albums from various artists, one compilation  – and three by Janet Jackson.

The Case For Janet Jackson is simply one of the greatest hitmakers of all time. She had a Number One song in 1986 (“When I Think of You”) and a Number One song in 2001 (“All for You”). Rhythm Nation 1814 is the only album in history to have five Top Five singles. 

She’s also been a huge influence, especially among female R&B singers, but well beyond that: Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Adam Levine, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift – all of them were inspired by Jackson. It would be easier to list the contemporary pop singers who weren’t influenced by Jackson, although I’m not aware of any.

The Case Against Jackson is sometimes considered a puppet under the influence of her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and thus not a creator of her own music. While Jam and Lewis have done brilliant work with her, that should hardly overshadow her own contributions. She gets co-writing and co-producing credits on most of her hit records. 

Besides, let’s look at that list up top again: Madonna always used co-writers and outside producers, Elton John never wrote a single one of his own lyrics, and Elvis Presley didn’t write songs at all. Hey, you know who else always had an outside producer to steer things along? The Beatles.

The Cool Factor She invented the two-person hand bra. 

The Verdict I vote yes on Janet Jackson.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Get Your Motor Running: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part II

I am inclined to cut Steppenwolf a little bit of slack, because frontman John Kay was born in Tilsit, Germany, (as Joachim Krauledat) in April 1944, which can’t have been the best time and place to start out in life. His father had already died in a Russian prison camp. Little Joachim and his mother fled East Germany in 1949, helped along by some smugglers who cut through barbed wire fences for them on their way to a refugee camp in West Germany.

Despite the singer’s provenance and the band’s name, Steppenwolf was really a Canadian band, Kay’s family having moved to Toronto in 1958. The band formed in 1961 and knocked around Canada under a couple of names before releasing the album Steppenwolf in January 1968. “Born to Be Wild” was astonishingly enough, the third single from that LP.

The song went to Number Two in the late summer of 1968, and thus was already a big hit before it was used on the soundtrack to Easy Rider, which wasn’t released until July 1969. (“The Pusher,” from Steppenwolf’s first album, also appeared in the film.) “Magic Carpet Ride,” the lead single from Steppenwolf the Second, followed, reaching the Top Ten in late 1968. “Rock Me” was their third and final Top Ten single, although they knocked around the lower reaches of the Top Forty for a few years after that.

Steppenwolf broke up in 1972, re-formed in 1974 for no particular purpose, broke up again, re-formed as John Kay & Steppenwolf, ad infinitum.  The original working band was only around for about five years; as a cultural force, they lasted about two.

The Case For “Born to Be Wild” is a landmark song, used to great effect in one of the cultural touchstones of the Sixties, living on via rock radio for several decades, and lending its lyrics to an entire genre of music. Really, inventing the term “heavy metal” might be Steppenwolf’s most significant achievement.

The Case Against “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” is a great one-two punch, but after that, their only Top Ten hit was “Rock Me,” which is terrible, and that ought to count for something. Steppenwolf had four other songs slither into the Top Forty (none going higher than 29), none of which I’d heard before researching this article, which may not mean much, except that I’ve heard them now and they’re not good, except possibly for the swinging “Hey Lawdy Mama.”

And they didn’t even invent the term “heavy metal.” “Born to Be Wild” was written by a guy calling himself Mars Bonfire, whose previous stage name had been Dennis Edmonton, but was born Dennis McCrohan. His brother Jerry Edmonton was Steppenwolf’s drummer, and Dennis had been part of an earlier version of the band called the Sparrows, but he wasn’t in Steppenwolf when he wrote the song.

The Cool Factor Jerry Edmonton is a very cool stage name for a Canadian, kind of a Great White North version of Randy California. Bass player Rushton Moreve, who co-wrote “Magic Carpet Ride,” was fired from the band when he stopped showing up for gigs and rehearsals in California, convinced that an earthquake was going to plunge it into the ocean. He was eventually killed in a car accident in Los Angeles, so maybe he knew what he was doing.

The Verdict “Born to Be Wild” is not only a great single (Rolling Stone had it at No. 129 in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time) but has had a huge footprint on the culture in the nearly 50 years since its release. But that’s basically all Steppenwolf has in its dossier for immortality. I vote no for Steppenwolf.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Passion of Saint Joan: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part I

In his book Positively 4th Street, David Hajdu tells the story of when Joan Baez was hosting a dinner party for her friends, and spent the afternoon cooking a big pot of stew for them. Bob Dylan, her boyfriend at the time, came over early, and methodically ate all the meat out of the stew pot before anyone else arrived.

At this point, the career of Joan Baez is viewed almost entirely through the lens of her relationship with Bob Dylan. At first she was his champion, bringing him up onstage during her concerts, becoming his lover, paving the way for him to become one of the leading protest singers of the moment. Soon, however, he would overshadow her, although they continued to be connected - she released a double album of Dylan covers, Any Day Now, in December 1968, after he was already married and relocated to Woodstock.

It is a bit unfair to view her this way, because Baez was a big star prior to her association with Dylan, Her first album, Joan Baez, went gold before Dylan ever left Minnesota. 

On the other hand, would Baez be as well-known today absent her relationship with Zimmy? She only ever had two songs in the Top Forty – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a cover of a song done by a band closely associated with Dylan, and “Diamonds and Rust,” a chronicle of her romance with Dylan.  Her resurgence in the 1970s was helped along by her appearances on the Rolling Thunder Revue, where she sang some astonishing duets with Dylan, as eventually released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue(She didn’t get as much of a boost from appearing in Renaldo and Clara.) Her scarce hits don’t get played too much on oldies radio stations these days. Without the Dylan connection, she probably wouldn’t be much better remembered than Judy Collins, or maybe Phil Ochs.

That’s the thing about hitching your wagon to Dylan: He’ll help make people remember you, but along the way, he’ll eat all the meat out of your stew.

The Case For Baez was arguably the leading light of the folk revival of the early 1960s; her first three albums all went gold, and she was hailed as the Queen of Folk. She maintained her stature throughout the decade to the point that she performed at Woodstock, then even had some hits in the 1970s. Folk isn’t rock & roll, but it had a huge influence on the rock music of that decade and beyond, and Baez personally influenced some of its most important artists. She had an extraordinarily pretty voice. Those Sixties records may not have been pop hits, but “There but for Fortune” and “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” (among many others) are wonderful songs.

The Case Against Folk isn’t rock & roll. She never really crossed over into pop, much less rock & roll; as I said, she only had two Top Forty hits, and one of those peaked at Number 35.  It’s also easy to overstate her position spearheading the folk movement; the Kingston Trio took “Tom Dooley” to Number One in November 1958, while Baez was still in high school.

The Cool Factor In the early 1980s, Baez dated Steve Jobs, who was 14 years younger than her. She had enough juice to be on the cover of Rolling Stone as late as 1983; I bought that issue as a wee tot, read the interview, and still don’t quite understand what she had done to deserve that honor.

The Verdict I keep thinking of Baez in relationship to Loretta Lynn. Country music isn’t rock & roll either, but Lynn influenced generations of rock stars, from Linda Ronstadt to Jack White. She wrote much more of her own material than Baez did, and some of those were stone classics like “Fist City” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She was at least as big a star in country as Baez was in folk, and country is a bigger deal than folk. What is the argument for inducting Baez and not Loretta Lynn? Can you make the case without saying "Bob Dylan"?

Meaning no disrespect to an important, accomplished artist and a highly admirable person, I vote no on Joan Baez.

Tom Nawrocki is a former editor at 'Rolling Stone' and the author of the novel 'What I Don't Know About Love.' You can read a sample chapter here

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Balloting, Class of 2017: An Introduction

When last we convened, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had just announced its 2016 class, consisting of the undeniable N.W.A along with Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple and Steve Miller. These latter four acts range from the eminently worthy to the inexplicable, but all fell under the general rubric of Seventies Classic Rock. Out of a fairly diverse pool of candidates, ranging from the JBs and Chaka Khan to the Smiths, it was hard to miss how sharply focused the inductees were on one era and one type of music. The door seemed to be wide open for Foghat.

That brings us to this year’s crop of nominees, which includes holdovers Yes and the Cars along with newcomers Journey, the J. Geils Band and ELO, all of whom could be described fairly or unfairly as Seventies Classic Rock and have to be tabbed as favorites, based on last year’s results. Once again this year, I have been tasked, fairly or unfairly, with evaluating the pool of candidates. And once again, I will be sharing with you the reader my thought processes as to why I am casting my vote for certain acts.  

Before we embark on that journey, as it were, I thought I would elucidate some of the criteria I use in evaluating these artists and their work, and then I'll start trotting out the essays where I attempt to answer these questions on behalf of the candidates. Bill James once described the Baseball Hall of Fame as "a self-defining institution that has by and large failed to define itself,” but Cooperstown is the OED compared with the Rock Hall. At least everyone understands that baseball players' ultimate goal is to win games, but Leonard Cohen and Janet Jackson and Kraftwerk and Lloyd Price all seemed to be pursuing different goals. How can you measure them up for the same honor? 

To approach that problem, here are some of the questions I ask myself:

How good was their music? The most important question, and probably the most subjective one.

What kind of impact did they have on the culture? There are bands like the Velvet Underground and the Ramones who have a huge influence on the future of music without ever really having hits. On the other hand, someone like Lionel Richie can be unavoidable for years without leaving any trace of his work. In my opinion, cultural impact is exactly the kind of thing that the Hall of Fame should be recognizing. But it’s also critical to ask:

How many hits did they have? No matter what you think of Chicago, they had a staggering 35 Top Forty singles and 20 Top Tens, which is more than Rod Stewart or the Beach Boys or the Temptations. That kind of thing is hard to look away from. The number of hits often seems to work in inverse proportions to an act's cultural impact, which requires a bit of a balancing act. But hey, they can’t all be the Beatles.

How much responsibility did they have for their own music? An auteur like Prince is obviously going to get a lot more credit for his work than someone like the Marvelettes, who released some wonderful singles but didn’t do much more than come in and sing on them at the final stage of production. This question is the only reason I can think of that the Mamas and Papas would sail in easily, while the extremely comparable Fifth Dimension have never been seriously considered, despite twice as many Top Forty hits.

How cool were they? No, wait – this is the most important question.