The tributes to Chuck Berry are pouring in from across the music world. The Billboard tribute linked above notes that John Lennon once said: “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry.’” The New York Times has published a fine list of 15 essential Chuck Berry songs that are worth listening to, again, in honor of his passing. And a good indication of Berry’s huge influence on other crucial artists in the rock ‘n roll genre is that his songs were covered by the Beatles, who released excellent versions of Rock and Roll Music and Roll Over Beethoven, and the Rolling Stones, who recorded memorable live versions of Carol and Little Queenie, and just about everybody else of consequence in the world of rock music. Has any artist had more songs covered by more superstars?
I can’t compete with the likes of John Lennon and Billboard in assessing the impact of Chuck Berry on the world of music, so I won’t even try. I can say this without fear of contradiction, however: when my college roommate and I hosted parties back in the late ’70s where the whole point was to drink draft beer and dance with wild abandon, nobody was better at getting people up and moving their feet than Chuck Berry. That remains true today, 40 years later. That’s quite an impact, when you think about it.
The other day, a colleague was talking about one of his young children and their behavior in the car. It made me remember when Richard and Russell were little, during what I now think of as “the Raffi Years.”
Raffi (whose name is actually Raffi Cavoukian) was a singer of children’s songs whose CDs dominated the playlists when the kids were in the car in the early ’90s. We had multiple Raffi recordings, and they were played on strict rotation.
At first, our discovery of Raffi — no doubt occurring through the “Moms’ grapevine” by which women with children disseminated information about what to do to keep from being driven crazy by those little hellions at home — was a blessing. A Raffi CD actually got Richard and Russell to stop poking each other, fidgeting in the back seat, and repeatedly asking “when are we getting there?” Instead, they listened to the music and would pipe up “put on Raffi!” whenever we got into the car.
And that quickly became a double-edged sword, because as they listened to the music, we did, too. And I’m not saying that Raffi’s music was utterly puerile, but songs about baby whales that are targeted for little kids simply aren’t meant for repeated listening by adults. At first I appreciated Raffi for helping to keep the kids occupied on car trips and introducing them to music, then repeated exposure to his songs started to really irritate me, and finally I would grit my teeth whenever the kids wanted to replay “Baby Beluga” again and think about how pleasant it would be to drive steel spikes into my eardrums.
Of course, one day Richard and Russell decided they’d had enough of Raffi and moved on, and soon enough they were listening to their own music on Walkmans and iPods and other devices. I feel grateful to Raffi for getting us through the squirmy years, but it was wonderful to take his CDs out of the car, forever. And I’ve got no desire to hear him sing, ever again.
I hope the Queen of Soul doesn’t fully drop the mike, because she’s simply irreplaceable. Of all the great female R&B and soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s — and there were a lot of them — Aretha Franklin was without peer. Once she sang a song she made it her own, and there was just something about the tone, and timbre, of her voice that could reach into your chest and grab your heart. Listen to any of her great recordings from the ’60s and you’ll be amazed at how fresh and stunning they still sound, 50 years later. I’ve provided two vintage videos, one from the ’60s and another from the ’70s, that I think make the point.
I hope Aretha Franklin gets to spend that time with her grandkids, but I also hope she’ll continue to give some of her time to the rest of us.
Last night Kish and I completed our Christmas cultural gift exchange by attending a performance of the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. Entitled Ella Fitzgerald & The great Ladies of Swing, the show featured the CJO in full throat and two superb guest artists: Marva Hicks and Nicki Parrott.
It’s the first time I’ve seen the CJO in a long time, and the show demonstrated what I’ve stupidly been missing. This is a tight group with a big sound and lots of talent to display, and when they get a chance to play classic tunes from the American songbook with two brilliant female vocalists (and, in Parrott’s case, a fine double bass musician, besides), you’re going to get a great show.
The program was top-notch from stem to stern, but I particularly liked Parrott’s rendition of Fever and I Will Wait for You and Hicks’ version of Stormy Weather, and Kish and I always relish Blue Skies, which was played on our wedding day. I also enjoyed CJO artistic director Byron Stripling’s tasty trumpet fills and deft vocal efforts to channel his inner Louis Armstrong– but the high point for me was Hicks’ powerful and heartfelt performance on My Man’s Gone Now, from Porgy and Bess, which was a knockout punch if there ever was one.
The CJO is another artistic asset in a city that is full of them. If you’re in the mood for some great lives music, you can still catch this show tonight and tomorrow.
Last night I got one of my Christmas presents when Kish and I attended Opera Columbus’ Mission: Seraglio. Opera tickets were one of my stocking stuffers.
The timing was excellent for another reason. Mission: Seraglio is a reimagining of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, and yesterday just happened to be Mozart’s birthday. The wily Wolfie, were he still among us, would have been 261 yesterday.
Opera Columbus’ production features all of the same beautiful music, but the setting and dialogue of the opera are transformed into a ’60s James Bond caper with a dashing spy, an archvillain apparently bent on world domination of a sort, and “Bond women” galore. The modifications turn Seraglio into an outright comic romp, from the point at the outset when a tiny doll figure parachutes through the Southern Theatre, to the suggestive rearrangement of topiary plants by a sex-obsessed gardener, to a clever use of the lyric translation display, to the finale where one of the characters is securely wrapped in a straitjacket and hauled away. The sets are great and the new dialogue is clever and occasionally laugh out loud funny. And, while the characters clearly enjoyed their light-hearted trip down James Bond Lane, they also did justice to the lovely, often passionate songs that Mozart created. I think he would have approved.
If you like popular Christmas music, you probably like Bing Crosby. It’s hard to think of a performer who is more identified with the holiday than Der Bingle.
Everyone knows about the Crosby version of White Christmas. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, his 1942 recording of the song remains the biggest selling record of all time, having sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. And if you grew up during the ’50s and ’60s, you remember the family getting together to watch Crosby’s annual Christmas show, in which the Old Groaner — whose actual first name was Harry — and his family and friends sang traditional carols and encouraged those at home to sing along. But Crosby had a series of big hits with Christmas songs, including a classic swing version of Jingle Bells recorded with the Andrews Sisters, above, and the irresistible Mele Kalikimaka (The Hawaiian Christmas Song), below. And that’s not even including the definitive Crosby treatment of I’ll Be Home For Christmas, either.
During this baking weekend, I’ve got my holiday music playlist on the iPod to keep me going as I mix, cut, and bake. It just wouldn’t be the same without the offerings of the crooner from Tacoma, Washington.
This morning when I walked into Terminal 2 at the Fort Lauderdale airport I heard a familiar, yet almost forgotten, sound in the air. A local elementary school recorder group was working through some holiday music, piping away with all their might.
It brought back memories of going to school holiday music concerts when the kids were little. Inevitably, at least one recorder performance was part of the show. There was something about the peculiar, high-pitched, quavering sound of recorders played by little kids that seemed to directly attack the central nervous system. We parents learned that a little recorder music goes a very long way.
Ever since, nothing says happy holidays quite like Deck the Halls played by a second-grade recorder band.