Which Blues Legend was a Conscientious Objector?

Willie Dixon’s life and work was virtually an embodiment of the progress of the blues, from an accidental creation of the descendants of freed slaves to a recognized and vital part of America’s musical heritage. That Dixon was one of the first professional blues songwriters to benefit in a serious, material way — and that he had to fight to do it — from his work also made him an important symbol of the injustice that still informs the music industry, even at the end of the 20th century. A producer, songwriter, bassist, and singer, he helped Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and others find their most commercially successful voices.

 Willie Dixon was a prolific blues songwriter with more than 500 compositions to his credit.Born and raised in Mississippi, he rode the rails to Chicago during the Great Depression and became the primary blues songwriter and producer for Chess Records. “Willie Dixon is the man who changed the style of the blues in Chicago,” proclaimed fellow bluesman Johnny Shines, as quoted in Guitar Player. “As a songwriter and producer, that man [was] a genius. Yes, sir.”

Dixon’s songs literally created the so-called “Chicago blues sound” and were recorded by such blues artists as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Koko Taylor, and many others. One of his better known compositions, “Back Door Man,” was recorded by the Doors. Some of Dixon’s songs went on to reach an international audience in the 1960s, when they were popularized by such British groups as the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, and Led Zeppelin.

Willie Dixon was born on July 1, 1915, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg was a lively town located on the Mississippi River midway between New Orleans and Memphis. Known as the site of a famous Civil War battle, Vicksburg was important musically as well. As a youth, Dixon heard a variety of blues, dixieland, and ragtime musicians performing on the streets, at picnics and other community functions, and in the clubs near his home where he would listen to them from the sidewalk.

Dixon grew up in an integrated neighborhood on the northern edge of Vicksburg, where his mother ran a small restaurant. The family of seven children lived behind the restaurant, and next to the restaurant was Curley’s Barrelhouse. Listening from the street, Dixon, then about eight years old, heard bluesmen Little Brother Montgomery and Charley Patton perform there along with a variety of ragtime and dixieland piano players.

Dixon first ran away from home when he was eleven. As he recalled in his autobiography, I Am the Blues, “I ran out in the country to a place 11 miles from home called Bovine, Mississippi…. It was nothing like I expected—man, you’re talking about a shack…. I thought our house was raggedy but… the house [I stayed] in had great big holes in the floor. You could see the hogs and chickens running around under the house.”

His first taste of country living also introduced him to hard work, something he would become more familiar with as he grew older. Although Dixon was happy when he got back home, his pre-teen and teen years were filled with travels and run-ins with the law. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, many men were riding the rails in search of work. Dixon soon found that“hoboing” was considered a crime, although, as he noted in his autobiography, it seemed that only black men were arrested for it.

Dixon was only twelve when he first landed in jail and was sent to a county farm for stealing some fixtures from an old torn-down house. He recalled in I Am the Blues : “That’s when I really learned about the blues. I had heard ’em with the music and took ’em to be an enjoyable thing but after I heard these guys down there moaning and groaning these really down-to-earth blues, I began to inquire about ’em…. I really began to find out what the blues meant to black people, how it gave them consolation to be able to think these things over and sing them to themselves or let other people know what they had in mind and how they resented various things in life.”

About a year later Dixon was caught by the local authorities near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and arrested for hoboing. He was given thirty days at the Harvey Allen County Farm, located near the infamous Parchman Farm prison. At the Allen Farm, Dixon saw many prisoners being mistreated and beaten. According to his autobiography, the authorities who were “running the farm didn’t have no mercy—you talk about mean, ignorant, evil, stupid and crazy. [They] fouled up many a man’s life…. This was the first time I saw a man beat to death.

Dixon himself was mistreated at the county farm, receiving a blow to his head that he said made him deaf for about four years. He managed to escape, though, and walked to Memphis, where he hopped a freight into Chicago. He stayed there briefly at his sister’s house, then went to New York for a short time before returning to Vicksburg.

When Dixon arrived in Chicago in 1936, he started training to be a boxer. He was in excellent physical condition from the heavy work he had been doing down south, and he was a big man as well. In 1937 he won the Illinois Golden Gloves in the novice heavyweight category. However, after getting into a brawl in the boxing commissioner’s office over the money he was supposed to receive, Dixon was suspended for six months, and his handlers were expelled permanently.

By the time he was a teenager, Dixon was writing songs and selling copies to the local bands. He also studied music with a local carpenter, Theo Phelps, who taught him about harmony singing. With his bass voice, Dixon later joined a group organized by Phelps, the Union Jubilee Singers, who appeared on local radio.  He might have been a successful boxer, but he turned to music instead, thanks to Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, a guitarist who had seen Dixon at the gym where he worked out and occasionally sang with him. The two formed a duo playing on street corners, and later Dixon took up the bass as an instrument. Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston gave Dixon his first musical instrument—a makeshift bass made out of an oil can and one string. They later formed a group, the Five Breezes, who recorded for the Bluebird label. Later on he formed another group, the Four Jumps of Jive. In 1945, however, Dixon was back working with Caston in a group called the Big Three Trio, with guitarist Bernardo Dennis (later replaced by Ollie Crawford).

Dixon had other problems, though, notably with the local draft board. His position was that black people had been exploited so much that they should not be obligated to serve in the armed forces. He spoke out on this issue frequently and with great force; eventually he was classified as unfit for military service and forbidden to work in any defense industry.

Williw Dixon plating

During this period, Dixon would occasionally appear as a bassist at late-night jam sessions featuring members of the growing blues community, including Muddy Waters. Later on when the Chess brothers — who owned a club where Dixon occasionally played — began a new record label, Aristocrat (later Chess), they hired him, initially as a bassist on a 1948 session for Robert Nighthawk. The Chess brothers liked Dixon’s playing, and his skills as a songwriter and arranger, and during the next two years he was working regularly for the Chess brothers. He got to record some of his own material, but generally Dixon was seldom featured as an artist at any of these sessions.


Dixon’s real recognition as a songwriter began with Muddy Waters’ recording of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” The success of that single, “Evil” by Howlin’ Wolf, and “My Babe” by Little Walter saw Dixon established as Chess’ most reliable tunesmith, and the Chess brothers continually pushed Dixon’s songs on their artists. In addition to writing songs, Dixon continued as bassist and recording manager of many of the Chess label’s recording sessions, including those by Lowell Fulson, Bo Diddley, and Otis Rush. Dixon’s remuneration for all of this work, including the songwriting, was minimal — he was barely able to support his rapidly growing family on the 100 dollars a week that the Chess brothers were giving him, and a short stint with the rival Cobra label at the end of the ’50s didn’t help him much.

little walter

In 1955 Dixon charted his first Number One hit when Little Walter recorded “My Babe,” a song that became a blues classic. Songwriter Mike Stoller of Leiber and Stoller fame told Goldmine magazine, “If he’d only done ‘My Babe’ [and nothing else], I think his name would have gone down in the history of American popular music. He created the entire sound that we now know as the Chess sound, and as such, he’s one of the most important record producers ever in the history of popular music. What impressed me most about his songs were their economy, their simplicity and their depth.” One of Dixon’s most widely recorded songs, “My Babe” has been performed and recorded by artists as varied as the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, the Righteous Brothers, Nancy Wilson, Ike and Tina Turner, and blues artists John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

During the mid-’60s, Chess gradually phased out Dixon’s bass work, in favor of electric bass, thus reducing his presence at many of the sessions. At the same time, a European concert promoter named Horst Lippmann had begun a series of shows called the American Folk-Blues Festival, for which he would bring some of the top blues players in America over to tour the continent. Dixon ended up organizing the musical side of these shows for the first decade or more, recording on his own as well and earning a good deal more money than he was seeing from his work for Chess. At the same time, he began to see a growing interest in his songwriting from the British rock bands that he saw while in London — his music was getting covered regularly by artists like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, and when he visited England, he even found himself cajoled into presenting his newest songs to their managements. Back at Chess, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters continued to perform Dixon’s songs, as did newer artists such as Koko Taylor, who had her own hit with “Wang Dang Doodle.” Gradually, however, after the mid-’60s, Dixon saw his relationship with Chess Records come to a halt. Partly this was a result of time — the passing of artists such as Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson reduced the label’s roster of older performers, with whom he had worked for years, and the company’s experiments with more rock-oriented sounds (especially on the “Cadet Concept” imprint) took it’s output in a direction to which Dixon couldn’t contribute.  He continued to play on recording sessions at Chess, though, most notably providing bass on all of Chuck Berry’s sessions starting with the recording of “Maybelline” in 1955. The death of Leonard Chess in the fall of 1969 and the subsequent sale of the company brought about the end of Dixon’s relationship to the company.

chuck berry

In 1957 Dixon joined the small independent Cobra Records, where he recorded such bluesmen as Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam, creating what became known as the “West Side Sound.” According to Don Snowden in I Am the Blues, it was a blues style that “fused the Delta influence of classic Chicago blues with single-string lead guitar lines à la B. B. King. The West Side gave birth to a less traditional, more modern blues sound and the emphasis placed on the guitar as a lead instrument ultimately proved to be a vastly influential force on the British blues crew in their formative stages.”

Gradually learning more about the music business, Dixon formed his own publishing company, Ghana Music, in 1957 and registered it with Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) to protect his copyright interest in his own songs. His “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was a Top Ten rhythm and blues hit for Otis Rush, but Cobra Records soon faced financial difficulties. By 1959 Dixon was back at Chess as a full-time employee.

I Am the Blues

By the end of the 1960s, Dixon was eager to try his hand as a performer again, a career that had been interrupted when he’d gone to work for Chess as a producer. He recorded an album of his best-known songs, I Am the Blues, for Columbia Records, and organized a touring band, the Chicago Blues All Stars, to play concerts in Europe.

Perhaps the tour’s greatest impact was in England, where it was booked by Giorgio Gomelsky in London at his Crawdaddy Club. At that time, Gomelsky managed the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, groups that went on to record at the Chess Studios in Chicago later in the 1960s. Dixon often provided young British musicians with original compositions, and as a result, his reputation as a songwriter grew among the new generation of rock musicians.

Jack Bruce of the British group Cream told Goldmine how thrilled he was when Dixon offered him encouragement about Cream’s version of “Spoonful.” “It was as a writer that Willie Dixon most influenced music—and me,” Bruce noted. “His incredible ability to tap in to the whole world’s consciousness made it possible for him to write songs that will never die.”

Suddenly, in his fifties, he began making a major name for himself on-stage for the first time in his career. Around this time, Dixon began to have grave doubts about the nature of the songwriting contract that he had with Chess’ publishing arm, Arc Music. He was seeing precious little money from songwriting, despite the recording of hit versions of such Dixon songs as “Spoonful” by Cream. He had never seen as much money as he was entitled to as a songwriter, but during the 1970s he began to understand just how much money he’d been deprived of, by design or just plain negligence on the part of the publisher doing its job on his behalf.

Led Zeppelin II    cream Cream

Arc Music had sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Bring It on Home” on Led Zeppelin II, saying that it was Dixon’s song, and won a settlement that Dixon never saw any part of until his manager did an audit of Arc’s accounts.Dixon and Muddy Waters would later file suit against Arc Music to recover royalties and the ownership of their copyrights. Additionally, many years later Dixon brought suit against Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over “Whole Lotta Love” and its resemblance to Dixon’s “You Need Love.” Both cases resulted in out-of-court settlements that were generous to the songwriter.

The Chess Box
Throughout the 1970s Dixon continued to write new songs, record other artists, and release his own performances on his own Yambo label. Two albums—Catalyst in 1973 and What’s Happened to My Blues? in 1977—received Grammy nominations. His busy performing schedule kept him on the road in the United States and abroad for six months out of the year until 1977, when his diabetes worsened and caused him to be hospitalized. He lost a foot from the disease but, after a period of recuperation, continued performing into the next decade.

The 1980s saw Dixon as the last survivor of the Chess blues stable and he began working with various organizations to help secure song copyrights on behalf of blues songwriters who, like himself, had been deprived of revenue during previous decades. In 1988, Dixon became the first producer/songwriter to be honored with a boxed set collection, when MCA Records released Willie Dixon: The Chess Box, which included several rare Dixon sides as well as the most famous recordings of his songs by Chess’ stars. The following year, Dixon published I Am the Blues (Da Capo Press), his autobiography, written in association with Don Snowden.

Dixon resumed touring and regrouped the Chicago Blues All-Stars in the early 1980s. A 1983 live recording from the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland resulted in another Grammy nomination. That same year, Dixon and his family moved to southern California, where Dixon began working on scores for movies. He produced a new version of “Who Do You Love” for Bo Diddley that was featured on the soundtrack for La Bamba, a film about Mexican American rock and roll sensation Ritchie Valens, and he performed his own “Don’t You Tell Me Nothin’” in Martin Scorsese’s 1986 pool hustler flick, The Color of Money.

La Bamba

In the 1980s, Dixon established the Blues Heaven Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing scholarship awards and musical instruments to poorly funded schools. Blues Heaven also offers assistance to indigent blues musicians and helps them secure the rights to their songs. Ever active in protecting his own copyrights, Dixon himself reached an out-of-court settlement in 1987 over the similarity of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 hit “Whole Lotta Love” to his own“You Need Love.”

Dixon’s final two albums were well received, with the 1988 album Hidden Charms winning a Grammy Award for best traditional blues recording. In 1989 he recorded the soundtrack for the film Ginger Ale Afternoon, which also was nominated for a Grammy.

When Dixon died in 1992 at the age of 76, the music world lost one of its foremost blues composers and performers. From his musical roots in the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, Dixon created a body of work that reflected the changing times in which he lived. His later songs kept pace with dynamic world issues, as exemplified by the composition “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace).” As Dixon concluded in I Am the Blues, “If you accept the wisdom of the blues, we can definitely have peace.”

Dixon continued performing, and was also called in as a producer for the work of his old stablemate Bo Diddley. By that time, Dixon was regarded as something of an elder statesman, composer, and spokesperson of American blues. Dixon eventually began suffering from increasingly poor health, and lost a leg to diabetes. He died peacefully in his sleep early in 1992.



Which Band did Frank Zappa Ironically Describe as “Better than the Beatles”?

The Shaggs were an American all-female rock and outsider music band formed in Fremont, New Hampshire in 1968. The band was composed of sisters Dorothy “Dot” Wiggin (vocals/lead guitar), Betty Wiggin (vocals/rhythm guitar), Helen Wiggin (drums) and, later, Rachel Wiggin (bass).

shaggs bl

The Shaggs were formed by Dot, Betty and Helen in 1968, on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother had predicted the band’s rise to stardom. The band’s only studio album, Philosophy of the World, was released in 1969. The album failed to garner attention, though the band continued to exist as a locally popular live act. The Shaggs disbanded in 1975 after the death of Austin.

shaggs car

The band is primarily notable today for their perceived ineptitude at playing conventional rock music; the band was described in one Rolling Stone article as “sounding like lobotomized Trapp Family singers.” Terry Adams of NRBQ compared the group’s melodic lines and structures to the free jazz compositions of Ornette Coleman.

The conceptual beginning of The Shaggs came from Austin Wiggin’s mother who, when her son was young, had predicted during a palm reading that he would marry a strawberry blonde woman, that he would have two sons after she had died, and that his daughters would form a popular music group. The first two predictions proved accurate, so Austin set about making the third come true as well. Austin withdrew his daughters from school, bought them instruments, and arranged for them to receive music and vocal lessons. The Wiggin sisters themselves never planned to become a music group, but as Dot later said, “[Austin] was something of a disciplinarian. He was stubborn and he could be temperamental. He directed. We obeyed. Or did our best.” Austin named The Shaggs after the then-popular shag hairstyle and as a reference to shaggy dogs. In 1968, Austin arranged for the girls to play a regular Saturday night gig at the Fremont, New Hampshire Town Hall.

shaggs album
shaggs don

The Dot Wiggin Band

On the topic of the album, Cub Koda wrote, “There’s an innocence to these songs and their performances that’s both charming and unsettling. Hacked-at drumbeats, whacked-around chords, songs that seem to have little or no meter to them … being played on out-of-tune, pawn-shop-quality guitars all converge, creating dissonance and beauty, chaos and tranquility, causing any listener coming to this music to rearrange any pre-existing notions about the relationships between talent, originality, and ability. There is no album you might own that sounds remotely like this one.”

At this point, the man who had promised to press 1,000 copies of Philosophy of the World reportedly absconded with 900 of them, as well as with the money paid to him. The rest were circulated to New England radio stations but attracted little attention, and Austin’s dreams of superstardom for his girls were dashed.

The most likely first instance of widespread publicity for The Shaggs was on The Dr. Demento show. In an early-1970s Dr. Demento show, Frank Zappa was a guest and was playing some of his favorite songs. He played a couple of Shaggs songs, and professed his love for the album. Original pressings are now quite valuable and highly-sought among rare record collectors.

In 1980, Terry Adams and Tom Ardolino, of the band NRBQ, who owned an original copy of the LP and were fans of the music, convinced their record label,Rounder Records, to reissue Philosophy of the World. Upon the LP’s release, Rolling Stone magazine accorded The Shaggs “Comeback of the Year” honors.The album was widely—if derisively—reviewed. Adams and Ardolino issued some unreleased 1975 recordings on the 1982 LP Shaggs’ Own Thing, but its closer approximation to conventional music caused some to disregard this collection. In 1988 Dorothy Wiggin rediscovered the lost masters of Philosophy of the World in a closet; these and the tracks from Shaggs’ Own Thing were remastered and released on Rounder as a self-titled compilation, which had a resequencing of all tracks.

Some Shaggivia

Kurt Cobain ranked “Philosophy of the World” No. 5 on his 50 best albums list.

The Shaggs are referenced in the 1995 Warner Bros. motion picture Empire Records. Robin Tunney’s character Debra asks James ‘Kimo’ Wills’ character Eddie if he has Philosophy of the World on 45 rpm single. Tunney’s character also makes an unsubstantiated claim that their second album was stolen prior to release and never recovered. The Dead Milkmen also reference the Shaggs at length on their 1995 song “When I Get To Heaven”.

RCA Victor released Philosophy of the World (with the original track sequence) on CD in 1999. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the CD on the day it was released, and The New Yorker subsequently ran a lengthy profile of the Shaggs by staff writer Susan Orlean, who mentions Frank Zappa’s (probably apocryphal) claim that The Shaggs were “better than the Beatles,” but also alludes to an online review by a writer who describes the album as “hauntingly bad”.

shaggs in later years

The Shaggs played at the NRBQ 30th Anniversary celebration held at The Bowery Ballroom in New York City November 20 & 21, 1999.

In 2001, the Animal World label released Better Than The Beatles, a Shaggs tribute album. The title was based on the title of an article by Lester Bangs in which he described the importance of what The Shaggs accomplished musically. The album featured established acts such as Ida, Optiganally Yours, R. Stevie Moore, Deerhoof and Danielson Famille covering The Shaggs’ songs..

shagg musical

A stage musical about The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World by librettist/lyricist Joy Gregory, composer/lyricist Gunnar Madsen, and co-conceiver/director John Langs, opened at the John Anson Ford Theatre in Los Angeles in November 2003. The show received its New York premiere starting May 12, 2011 in a co-production between Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop.

Helen Wiggin died in 2006. She was survived by her two sons. The widow of Austin Wiggin, Jr., Annie Wiggin, died in 2005.

In May 2011 The Shaggs were the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary by Jon Ronson.

In the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie gives Sam a mix tape which includes music by The Shaggs.

Dot Wiggin released a solo album, Ready! Get! Go!, on Alternative Tentacles Records on October 29, 2013. The album contains new recordings of previously unrecorded Shaggs songs as well as new songs Wiggin wrote with her band.

Which Singer/Entertainer/Actress Once Worked at a Pineapple Canning Factory?

Before there were Jewish princesses, there were bawdy Jewish women. Bette Midler fits into this earlier tradition. She is the latest incarnation of the early twentieth-century bawdy entertainers such as Belle Barth and Sophie Tucker. Indeed, Midler does an imitation of Tucker in her role as Delores De Lago, the lowest form of show business and the toast of Chicago. Born in Honolulu on December 1, 1945 to Fred (a navy base painter and a house painter) and Ruth (a seamstress) Midler, Bette (named after Bette Davis) learned as a young girl to observe other people’s behavior carefully and create her own persona. Though her mother did name her after the Hollywood actress, she always thought that the name Bette was one syllable and she always pronounced Bette’s name as “Bet”.

Bette Midler discovered the glamour of entertainment and the arts through books. Every Saturday, she and her sister were dropped off at the Honolulu Public Library, where Midler would look at pictures and read books about opera, ballet, and theater. When she saw a picture of Ethel Barrymore, she wanted to be her.

She was the third daughter in a family where both parents were frustrated and disappointed with their condition. Midler later remembered screaming and shouting matches between her parents and between her father and older sister Susan. In school, she felt like an outsider as well. She was the only white in school, as she later recalled, and she was Jewish. Neither she nor her classmates knew what that meant. Bette wisecracked that she thought it had something to do with boys. Witty responses, quick retorts, and a ready smile became her defense against unpleasant home and school realities. Although she performed well in school, being elected senior class president and graduating as the class valedictorian, she always felt her physical appearance combined with her outré status made her different from the majority of students.  As a young girl in Hawaii, Bette worked at a pineapple processing plant. At school, Bette Midler was voted “Most Talkative” and “Most Dramatic” by her classmates.

After a year at the University of Hawaii, she left for New York and a career in show bette Middler as younf girlbusiness.

Midler’s professional career began with a small role in the movie ‘Hawaii”, earning her enough money to move to New York City in 1965. Getting her start in experimental theater, Midler viewed herself as a singer and a clown, and hoped that opportunities to perform would materialize. She gained a small part in the chorus of Fiddler on the Roof in 1965 and later was given the part of Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tsaytl. She stayed with the show for three years. While performing in Fiddler, she also sang at the Improvisation Club, where she met Stephen Ostrow, the owner of the Continental Baths, a gay gathering place where entertainers performed while the audience sat around the pool.

bette and barry Bette and Barry

With Barry Manilow as her accompanist, Midler developed many of the outrageous personae that became the standards of her concert show and the basis of her spectacular success. One of her nicknames, Bathhouse Bette, as the title of her 1978 album. Her most famous nickname, the Divine Miss M, also comes for her years at the Baths.

bette middler divine

The Divine Miss M became her central character, a woman who wore a black lace corset and gold lamé pedal pushers while singing songs of the 1940s and 1950s. In between songs, she told off-color jokes, moving constantly around the stage. She made frequent references to male sexual parts, and laughed alongside her audience. Midler took neither herself nor her subject matter seriously and communicated a sense of irreverence to her listeners that may have both shocked and delighted them simultaneously. In the late 1960s, when Midler flourished at the Continental Baths, the country was experiencing a social upheaval. Midler’s enthusiastic willingness to discuss in public topics that had always been reserved to private spaces fit into the revolutionary changes in sexual behavior and discourse. Her support for gay men, who have remained a loyal contingent of fans for her shows and records, added to the image she projected of a free and anarchic spirit.

From April 28-May 16, 1971, Midler starred as the “Acid Queen” in the first professional production of the rock opera, “Tommy.”

Midler released her debut album, The Divine Miss M, on Atlantic Records in December 1972. The album was co-produced by Barry Manilow, who was Bette’s arranger and music conductor at the time. It reached Billboard’s Top 10 and became a million-selling Platinum-certified album,  earning Midler the 1973 Grammy Award for Best New Artist.] It featured three hit singles—”Do You Wanna Dance?”, “Friends”, and “Boogie Boogie Bugle Boy”—the third of which became Midler’s first No. 1 Adult Contemporary hit.

andrew sisters The Andrew Sisters

“Bugle Boy” became a successful rock cover of the classic swing tune originally introduced and popularized in 1941 by the famous Andrews Sisters, to whom Midler has repeatedly referred as her idols and inspiration, as far back as her first appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Midler told Carson in an interview that she always wanted to move like the sisters, and Patty Andrews remembered: “When I first heard the introduction on the radio, I thought it was our old record. When Bette opened at the Amphitheater in Los Angeles, Maxine and I went backstage to see her. Her first words were, ‘What else did you record?'”During another Midler concert, Maxine went on stage and presented her with an honorary bugle. Bette recorded other Andrews Sisters hits, including “In the Mood” and “Lullaby of Broadway”.

Midler at the premiere of her feature-film starring debut, The Rose, in 1979.

Her self-titled follow-up album was released at the end of 1973. Again, the album was co-produced by Manilow. It reached Billboard’s Top 10 and eventually sold close to a million copies in the United States alone. Midler returned to recording with the 1976 and 1977 albums, Songs for the New Depression and Broken Blossom. In 1974, she received a Special Tony Award for her contribution to Broadway, with Clams on the Half Shell Revue playing at the Minskoff Theater. From 1975–1978, she also provided the voice of Woody the Spoon on the PBS educational series Vegetable Soup. In 1977, Midler’s first television special, whose title, Ol’ Red Hair is Back, was a takeoff on Frank Sinatra’s Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, premiered, featuring guest stars Dustin Hoffman and Emmett Kelly. It went on to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Special — Comedy-Variety or Music.

bette on carson early


An appearance on the Johnny Carson Show in 1970 helped to give her a national audience.  She appeared on the Tonight Show, and was Johnny’s last guest on his last show.bette on carson's show

In 1972, Aaron Russo became her manager and is credited with organizing her career and arranging her tours. They had a tumultuous personal and professional relationship, which resulted in Midler taking a year off in 1974 to recover from the mental and physical pressure of constant touring.

In 1979, she made her first movie, The Rose. In it, she played a rock performer, reminiscent of both her own experience and Janis Joplin’s. The performance, a tour de force of acting and singing, demonstrated the incredible stress associated with touring and the added tension of a domineering manager. Midler broke with Russo in 1979 and took charge of her own career.

bette thighsw.That year, she also released her fifth studio album, Thighs and Whispers. Midler’s first foray into disco was a commercial and critical failure and went on to be her all-time lowest charting album, peaking at No. 65 on the Billboard album chart.

bette midler as the rose 2   bette midler the rose

The Rose launched Bette Midler’s Hollywood career.. Soon afterward, she began a world concert tour, with one of her shows in Pasadena being filmed and released as the concert film Divine Madness (1980). Unfortunately, she followed up this success with a movie called Jinxed (1980), which was exactly that. Her movie career went from a spectacular beginning to a seemingly disastrous end. The next few years were very difficult for Bette Midler, and by her own admission, she experienced a mental breakdown. Rest, therapy, and contemplation, a decided contrast to her usual style and behavior, restored her spirit. The whirlwind 1970s, which had included the winning of a Grammy, a Tony, and an Emmy award, ended with Jinxed. Midler has lent her voice to many animated characters including a wooden spoon and a snobby poodle.

Her personal life got back on track, however, when she met and married a German performance artist named Martin von Haselberg in December 1984. The wedding took place, after a brief romance, in Las Vegas and was performed by an Elvis impersonator. By her account, her new husband was funnier than she was, extremely supportive of her career ambitions, and thoughtful in his guidance.

Midler credits von Haselberg with the turnaround in her career. He suggested that she return to comedy, her natural métier. In what turned out to be a brilliant move, she signed with the Disney Company to make a series of comedies. In 1986, she appeared in two movies, both of which became smash hits: Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. The former movie was the first R-rated movie to come from Disney. These movies established Bette Midler as a major comic actress. The great success of both movies made her known nationally and internationally. Previously, her concert tours, which took her overseas as well, attracted only the young, enthusiastic fans that enjoyed her outrageous humor. In these movies, though Midler’s anarchic bent could occasionally be glimpsed, it was her smirk, her grin, and her swagger, rather than her bawdiness, which appealed to a larger, more mainstream audience.

These two hits were followed in quick succession by Outrageous Fortune (1987) and Big Business (1988). In 1989, she produced Beaches through her own production company, All Girl Productions. Though the movie had a successful musical score, it was a melodrama that did poorly at the box office. Audiences did not seem to want Bette Midler to be anything but funny. However, she had other ideas and plans for her career. In the following three years, she appeared in, and produced, three more melodramas, all of which bombed at the box office: Stella (1990), Scenes from a Mall (1991), and For the Boys (1992).

bette midler's daughter Bette’s daughter Sophie

In her personal life, Bette Midler was feeling more confident and capable of sustaining professional failure. In November 1986, she gave birth to a daughter, Sophie (named after Sophie Tucker). After assessing her career, she decided to return to her roots: concertizing and regaining contact with a live audience and her legion of fans around the country. On September 4, 1993, she opened a five-week stint at Radio City Music Hall in New York City as the first leg of a multi-city tour. She broke all records in ticket selling and logged more consecutive performances than any other single performer at Radio City. The tour continued into 1994 and won large audiences and critical praise.

bette midler gypsy

On December 12, 1993, she appeared on television as Mamma Rose in the CBS production of Gypsy. She also played a witch in the film Hocus Pocus. Midler continues to invent and reinvent herself in both old and new media. Her fans enjoy her standard material, always varied with contemporary commentary. In her 1993–1994 concert tour, Dolores De Lago reappeared along with her backup singers, the Harlettes. Midler jokes about the fact that she is a Jewish woman married to a German and readily identifies herself as a Jewish outsider in a Christian world. She clearly believes that her Jewishness adds to her witty understanding of a confusing world.

Bette Midler raised public consciousness on a very important topic, and she did it in mainstream media such as the movies and television. Midler’s image of a bawdy woman, who is both knowledgeable and interested in matters sexual, has rarely had the public airing she provided. She is an independent thinker and an initiator of her romantic encounters. As a successful woman actress, she is also a professional who has resources to aid other women and acts as a role model to women in all fields, not only entertainment.

Since 2000, Midler has been working on films that highlight the woman’s perspective. She produced Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), based on the book about a group of non-conformist girlfriends in Louisiana, and played a major role in The Stepford Wives, a remake of the 1975 “gender war” thriller, in which the town’s men replace their “liberated” wives with a group of obedient robotic look-alikes.

Another passion for Midler is the environment, and she founded the New York Restoration Project in 1995 to restore and revitalize open space in her city of residence. In 1999, after then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani threatened to sell off many of the city-owned community gardens, Midler arranged to buy all of the gardens from the city and created a trust to preserve them. New York State Governor George Pataki awarded her his 2002 Award for Parks from Preservation for her conservation efforts.

Humor is an extremely effective tool with which to observe human behavior. When the comic laughs at herself as well as at the foibles of her audience, she creates a connection between people and an opportunity to examine serious subjects in a funny manner. Important and forbidden topics receive airings. Bette Midler’s knowing smile, which rarely leaves her face, reminds her audience that a humorous perspective, on any and all subjects, offers catharsis alongside illumination.

Bette Midler has written two books that capture her dissenting form of humor: A View from a Broad (1980) and a children’s verse book, The Saga of Baby Divine (1983), in which the first word she learned was “more.” She creates a persona of a woman who has a strong sense of self and a commitment to both justice and self-satisfaction. In a culture that has traditionally seen women as submissive and subservient to the men in their lives, Bette Midler offers a startling alternative. Her women are pushy, ambitious, often selfish, but they are also generous in spirit, always ready to laugh, and fearless in their contact with life. Because the world always needs the fresh and audacious perspective she has to offer, Bette Midler’s future appears rosy.

current bette midler

Over the course of her career, Bette has won three Grammy Awards, four Golden Globes, three Emmy Awards, and a Tony Award, and has been nominated for two Academy Awards.


Whose house did Paul McCartney Share?


I had the great pleasure of seeing/hearing/meeting Peter Asher at the late great Johnny D’s in Somerville in the summer of 2012 when he led an interesting and funny multi-media overview of his life and career. It included film, loads of 1960’s vintage Swingin’ London Beatle era anecdotes about the band and Paul McCartney,( his sister Jane’s long-time boyfriend.) There were also great stories around Peter’s successful duo, Peter & Gordon. He fed his muse that evening by playing many of their songs with a backup band. Finally, being a central figure in the 70’s California scene (Linda Ronstadt’s producer/manager, as well as James Taylor’s producer.)  He also managed Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King.  It was truly one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life…

Peter L. Asher CBE (born 22 June 1944) is a British guitarist, singer, manager and record producer. He first came to prominence in the 1960s as a member of the pop music vocal duo Peter and Gordon, before going on to a successful career as a manager and record producer.

Peter child actor

Peter Asher: I recently found the demo Paul McCartney had made for me of “A World Without Love.” Once you find something and put it in the show, it’s everywhere the next day, there’re no secrets. We play that now, and I found that about six months ago. I thought the reel–to-reel tape had gone, but I found a DAT transfer, which I had done at the time when DATs were going to be the future, that still hasn’t quite happened (laughs). I have added in a couple of poster and photos that I found very recently. In fact, I was just mentioning that we found this poster of us and the Rolling Stones when we toured together, we were co-headlining. They were closing, but we were billed equally. I threw that in somewhere, found a way to fit that into the narrative.

 I heard a story that you were coming downstairs in your house and a couple Beatles were sitting at your piano, having written a rather famous song. Is that true?

Peter Asher: No, I came downstairs at their request. In our house, Paul [McCartney] was living in our family home for a couple of years when they weren’t on the road. He and I shared the top floor where the guest room and my bedroom were. In the basement, there was a little music room where my mother gave oboe lessons. She taught at the Royal Academy of Music up the road, where she was an oboe professor and she also gave private lessons at home. To digress for a second, one of the interesting facts is that long before I had anything to do with the Beatles or had anything to do with anything, one of my mother’s pupils, whom she taught the oboe, was George Martin. Just weird, couldn’t make that stuff up. 

Anyway, Paul would sometime use the music room when my mother wasn’t teaching there. It had a small upright piano, a music stand and a sofa. One afternoon early on, shortly after he moved in, John [Lennon] came over and they were down there together for a couple of hours. No guitars, sitting at the piano, side by side, and Paul stuck his head out the door and called upstairs and asked me if I wanted to come down. He had the song they finished. So I came down and sat on the sofa, opposite the upright piano, and they played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time, and they asked me what I thought. “What did you think?” I said it was very good! 

It does sound a bit pretentious because it’s only rock and roll, but there actually is something extraordinary about being present at the moment of the creation of great art. Your first reaction is you want to hear it again because it is just so incredibly good. You do wonder if you are losing your mind or if it’s about the best song you ever heard or both, but it was. At that point I was 20.

 Do you remember the first time you heard Taylor perform?

Peter Asher: The first time I heard him sing I was totally knocked out, because here was someone who looked like he was just going to be an ordinary strumming folkie [but] he played the guitar with the skill of a classical guitarist. He had been listening to Segovia and Julian Bream as well as pop music. Even though he had an almost folkie-ish flavor to his voice, his phrasing owed more to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. He played classical guitar, but with sort of jazz voicing as well as all the folkie [suspended] chords and stuff. Then he wrote these incredible songs. I was extremely impressed and still am.

Asher was born at the Central Middlesex Hospital. When he was eight years old, he began working as a child actor, and appeared in the film The Planter’s Wife, and the stage play Isn’t Life Wonderful. At the age of ten, Peter played the appealing central juvenile part in the 1954 film version of Isn’t Life Wonderful, along with stars Cecil Parker and Donald Wolfitt. He also appeared in the ITV series, The Adventures of Robin Hood. He is a member of Mensa (as am I). While attending the independent Westminster School as a day boy, he first met fellow pupil Gordon Waller (1945–2009), and they began playing and singing together as a duo in coffee bars. In 1962, they began working formally as Peter and Gordon. Their first (and biggest) hit was the 1964 Paul McCartney song “A World Without Love.”

Peter and Sister    Peter and Gordon  Peter and Paul

Asher later read philosophy at King’s College London. Asher is the son of Dr Richard Asher and Margaret Eliot, and the older brother of actress and businesswoman, Jane Asher, and radio actress, Clare Asher. Jane Asher was, in the mid-1960s, the girlfriend of Paul McCartney. Through this connection, Asher and Waller were often given unrecorded Lennon-McCartney songs to perform.In 1965, he was best man when singer Marianne Faithfull married John Dunbar in Cambridge

James Taylor   Peter and JamesPeter & James

After Peter and Gordon disbanded in 1968, Asher took charge of the A&R department at the Beatles’ Apple Records label, where he signed a then-unknown James Taylor and agreed to produce the singer-songwriter’s debut solo album.  The album was not a success, but Asher was so convinced that Taylor held great potential that he resigned his post at Apple to move to the United States and work as Taylor’s manager. Asher produced Paul Jones’ rendition of the Bee Gees’ “And the Sun Will Shine” which was released as a single (only in the UK). He also produced a number of Taylor’s recordings from 1970 to 1985, including Sweet Baby James, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, JT and Flag.

Peter & Linda   Gold records linda

In the early 1970s Asher also managed the country rock band, Country, which recorded for Atlantic Records through its subsidiary Clean Records, featuring Michael Fondiler and Tom Snow, who has since become a songwriter. For a time, Asher also managed James Taylor’s sister Kate Taylor. When she decided to leave the business, she recommended him to Linda Ronstadt at which point Asher became Ronstadt’s manager. Asher achieved his greatest success producing a long string of multi-platinum albums for James Taylor, and for Linda Ronstadt, including Heart Like a WheelSimple Dreams,Living in the USAWhat’s NewCanciones De Mi Padre and Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.

The Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood was opened on 23 September 1973 by Elmer Valentine and Lou Adler along with original partners David Geffen, Elliot Roberts and Peter Asher.

Peter, Bonnie, etc..    andrew, linda, waddy

Asher also played a role in shaping the Californian rock sound prominent during the 1970s, producing records for Ronstadt, J. D. Souther, Andrew Gold and Bonnie Raitt. In 1976, Asher and Waller reformed for the annual New York “Beatlefest” and played a few other dates. In the 1980s, Asher also worked on hit albums for artists as diverse as Cher and 10,000 Maniacs.

In February 1995, Asher was named Senior Vice-President, Sony Music Entertainment. At the beginning of 2002, Asher left Sony and returned full-time to the management of artists’ careers as co-President of Sanctuary Artist Management. In January 2005 he was named President, the position he held until September 2006, when he resigned. In 2007 Asher joined forces with his friend Simon Renshaw (who manages the Dixie Chicks) at the company Simon founded, Strategic Artist Management. Strategic has grown into a dominant force in the entertainment industry, now managing artists in many fields of endeavour beyond just music – one of Asher’s clients is Pamela Anderson. Asher also reunited with James Taylor as the producer of the Live at the Troubadour reunion album recorded in 2007, with Carole King and Taylor’s original band.

During 2005 and 2006, Peter and Gordon reformed for occasional concerts. However, Waller died in 2009 and in its obituary, The Times observed that “Waller was thought more handsome than the slightly nerdish looking Asher”.

Peter Asher Nerd Peter Asher or Austin Powers?

Asher had been quoted as saying that actor Mike Myers has said he had patterned his Austin Powers character after Asher’s appearance, although Elizabeth Hurley, who co-starred in Austin Powers, claimed that the original model was broadcaster Simon Dee.

In 2011 Asher was the executive producer of the Listen to Me: Buddy Holly compilation album and also music supervisor, producer, and co-host of the Buddy Holly: Listen to Me; The Ultimate Buddy Party PBS Pledge Special. Performed and filmed in front of a live audience the Buddy Holly tribute concert aired as PBS Pledge Special in December 2011 and May and June 2012. The Special received the highest 2012 Silver Telly Award in the Category of TV Programs, Segments, or Promotional Pieces.

Asher was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to the British music industry.

peter and albert  Albert Lee and Peter

Recently, Peter Asher has been playing shows as part of a duo with Albert Lee that showcases songs from both their careers.

Millie Millie

Asher had a short-lived relationship with singer Millie Small, also known as Millie, who sang “My Boy Lollipop”, which was never back-to-back on the Hot 100 with “A World Without Love”, though both were together on that chart many weeks.

Peter & Betty    Peter, Wendy & daughter

He was married twice, first to Betty Doster. In 1983 he married his second wife, Wendy Worth. Their daughter, Victoria Asher, was born in 1984. She is the keytarist in the American synthpop/punk band Cobra Starship.

Peter today

After living in Los Angeles for many years, Asher and his wife relocated with their daughter to New York in the mid-1990s.


Who was Responsible for Marketing the Greatest Band of the Rock/Pop Era?

The story of Brian Epstein has been told often in any discussion of the Beatles. He “discovered” them, dressed them, marketed them, negotiated (not particularly well) record contracts for them, and made a fortune through them. Clearly he loved them and  was extremely protective of them, as he was with his other acts, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Cilla Black, etc… One always wonders what his lot would have been had he not dies so young.

Brian Epstein, certainly led an interesting life. Born during the depression in the 1930’s, he was at an advantage being that his parents owned a furniture store. At the age of sixteen Brian started working with them and soon realized he was born to sell. His father promoted him to managing the record department, as the family business, named “NEMS” expanded.

brian epsteinIn July of 1961 Brian was selling a music publication called “Mersey Beat”, and this is when he realized his interest in music.He decided he was confident enough to ask Bill Harry if he could write a record column in Mersey Beat. On August 3rd 1961 his column appeared in the third issue. The Whitechapel NEMS store, where Brian worked had a policy that they could obtain any record that had been released. It was October of 1961, when one of the stores regular customers came in looking for “My Bonnie” by the Beatles. This was the beginning of Brian’s interest in the “Beatles.” As more and more kids came in inquiring about the band , Brian’s interest piqued and he discovered that they were performing at a local spot called the “Cavern Club” which was located down the street from the NEMS store. The Cavern was a seedy, dark and dingy club where the new bands would book gigs to perform. Wanting to persue his curiousity, he decided to pay the club a visit and was completly charged from the energy and excitement going on around him. The Beatles performance was raw and full of energy, and Brian took advantage of the opportunity and approached them with a request offering to manage them.


brian epsteinIn December of 1961, Epstein assumed his role as Manager of the Beatles, after seeing them in their leathers, smoking cigarettes and swearing on stage he immediately decided to change their image. Changing their look and stage presence, he purchased Mohair suits and made a determined effort securing them gigs in other venues. He campaigned the various record lables, again determined to get them signed to a recording contract and after being rejected by Decca, among other labels he managed to get them signed with EMI. Initially The Beatles weren’t completely confident and trustful of “Eppie”, but by prooving to them with his hard work and devotion he earned their respect and admiration.

When The Beatles released their first single “Love Me Do”, Brian creativly co-ordinated his family and friends to frequent the music stores having them ask for The Beatles new single, this in turn caused a buzz on the streets which is what Brian wanted. His desire to have the Beatles succeed was the key to his own success, he began expanding his operations, and was soon managing other bands such as Gerry and The Pacemakers. Brian Epstein became a major player in the Liverpool music scene.

It was no secret that Brian Epstein was gay. In school he recalls being “ragged, nagged and bullied” and dropped out at the age of 16. He was drafted into the Army but after 10 months was discharged for being “mentally unfit” after apparently, once again harrassed and bullied. After moving away from home, he began pursuing his sexual interest in men. In 1956 he was arrested for propositioning several men (for immoral purposes) in a subway lavatory, sadly he was a victim of an undercover sting, pleading guilty Brian was fined and released.

brian epsteinThe Beatles knew all along that Brian was gay, although he was professional and a distinguished business man his double life wasn’t always as private as he wanted it to be. There were relentless rumours that Epstein was in love with John Lennon. Although well aware of John’s talent, his wittiness and good looks were intensely attractive to Brian, so much so that he wouldn’t look John in the eye when speaking with him for fear he would reveal his secret. John was completely aware of Brian’s feelings toward him and was sometimes teased by his mates about “Eppie’s” subtle advances, and so the gossip begins…

“The Beatles were number one in Brian’s life always,” Sir George Martin has said, “as they were mine.” However, Brians homosexuality made the devotion he had for the group a little more complex than Sir George’s – “He couldnt help wanting them too.” When Brian bought his flat, it was said he was planning on seducing John there, but anytime John would show up, he would always have a Beatle mate with him.

The most popular rumour, that has found its own place in history, is the story of John and Eppie’s affair in Barcelona, April 1963. Apparently John agreed to go with Brian to Barcelona for 10 days. The decision was made after Cynthia had given birth to their son Julian, but Cynthia wasn’t aware of Brian’s motives at the time. Realizing that John needed a vacation and a break away, she urged him to go and was left at home with their new born son, feeling lonely and left out.

brian epsteinThe vacation to Barcelona was an experience for John, they went to clubs, bull fights, shopped, they would frequent sidewalk cafe’s and talk about homosexuality. John asked alot of questions, wanting to know what Brian found attractive in men as they passed by, he enjoyed these talks with Brian. John was a writer, always thinking and always experiencing life to the fullest. John admitted that their relationship was almost an affair that was never consumated. Although some say it was likely they did have a physical relationship. The light hearted teasing continued until it went too far, John was under the influence of too much alcohol and proceeded to beat up a disc jockey at Paul McCartney’s 21st birthday party. Brian came to the rescue and wrote a check to avoid a law suit. It has been noted that confidantes of both John Lennon and Brian Epstein say these snippets of gossip are Just myths. Perhaps a double fantasy?

Brian continued to promote the Beatles, and when “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” were topping the charts in November of 1963 he negotiated a booking on the “Ed Sullivan Show” for the following February. The Beatles career skyrocketed after the historical appearance, and an American tour was scheduled including a sold out concert at Shea Stadium in New York. It was dubbed the first stadium concert in Rock ‘n’ Roll history. The Beatles were on their way to stardom thanks to their devoted and faithful manager “Eppie.”

Epstein was prone to depression, and in 1965, while being blackmailed over his homosexuality (a crime in Britain at the time), he attempted suicide. He bounced back and got The Beatles a new contract with Capitol Records, but as The Beatles traveled the world and enjoyed unprecedented fame, Epstein stayed in London and Sussex and felt slighted. At the same time, he was handing over the band’s management without telling them (likewise, they had incorporated, without including him)

As The Beatles’ career was soaring, Brian found himself less involved in the routine operations. The Beatles empire was growing and Brian was no longer holding the master key. Epstein was feeling insecure about his future with the boys, his contract was due to expire as manager and he feared it wouldn’t be renewed. He began his downward spiral, becoming depressed leading his double life, and driven by his blatant drug addiction he spent his time drinking and gambling to extreme, tripping on LSD, and popping pills. Brian Epstein’s lifestyle became more than he could handle.

While the “Fab Four” were on a spiritual retreat reeping the benefits of stardom, Brian Epstein died on August 27, 1967 disallusioned and alone. The official cause was said to be an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. The Beatles were devasted with the news of Brian’s death, John’s response to a reporter was ” he was just a beautiful fella.” Brian Epstein was the underlying success of the Beatles and although not nearly as famous as the “Fab Four” its been said that Paul dubbed him the “Fifth Beatle.”

“He was in love with me,” John said of Brian in 1980. “Its interesting and will make a nice Hollywood Babylon someday about Brian Epsteins sex life, but its irrelevant, absolutely irrelevant.” Double Life…Double Fantasy, the secret was buried with Brian Epstein on August 29th 1967.


Which Rocker has been called the ‘Ultimate Sideman’?

Ronnie Wood  has been called ‘the ultimate sideman’, yet his gift as a guitar player, especially on slide guitar or the notoriously difficult lap-steel guitar, place him well above the status of a mere sideman.

Ron Wood & Rod Stewart     ron wood & the faces

Ronnie Wood played his first ever concert with the Rolling Stones on his twenty-eighth birthday in Baton Rouge Louisiana; it was 1975 and he had been brought in to replace Mick Taylor who had recently quit the band. Ronnie was already a veteran, having played first with The Birds (not to be confused with Roger McGuinn’s band, The Byrds), before joining Jeff Beck’s band, where he played bass, and later the Faces with Rod Stewart.


Ronnie Wood was born in Hillingdon, Middlesex, England, in 1947, into a musical and artistic family – his father Arthur was an amateur musician and ten-year-old Ronnie played his first gig as a member of his father’s Original London Skiffle Group at the Regal cinema in Uxbridge. His two older brothers Arthur and Ted went to art school and Art was also an accomplished musician. At sixteen years old, before pursuing his musical career, Ronnie went to Ealing College of Art in west London.

His parents, he has said, were the first generation in his family to live on land as previous generation made barges their homes. His dad played piano and harmonica, busked and entertained in the music halls. “At my first wedding, Keith [Richards] told me, ‘Your dad’s got more talent in his little finger then you’ll ever have’ and I went, ‘That’s a compliment, even though you’re trying to put me down, Keith, because you love my dad.’ Archie. Good old Archie…”

Ron Wood & keith

Having first seen the Rolling Stones play live the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in 1964, Ronnie decided that it was a band he would like to join, but never thought he would. It was ten years later that Ronnie first played on a Rolling Stones studio album – he inspired and plays guitar on the title track of It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll. Two years later he made his first official appearance on an album, although for years Keith insisted he was not really a Rolling Stone – it was on Black and Blue and he’s been ever-present for the past thirty-seven years.

Ron Wood and the Stones

For the first 17 years of his Stones life he was just a hired hand. Did it make him insecure? “I just looked at it like I was doing my apprenticeship, even though I might have been 50 years old. I was learning, but I was teaching as well: how to let go and enjoy life.” He also performed another valuable function – as a glue in the combustible relationship between Jagger and Richards. “During the Dirty Work days, that was a really bad time, I got them through that. I’d be like, ‘You stay near the phone, I’m going to get him on the phone and I’ll ring you back.'”

Does it feel different now he’s a fully fledged member of the band? “That’s right, now they listen to me before they make a decision. In the old days, me and Sherry used to say, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth, if it’s all right with everyone else’, but now it’s not like that.”

Among Ronnie’s numerous other credits are appearances on Keith Richards’s solo albums, he toured with Keith Richards as, The New Barbarians in the late 1970s and 1980s. He’s appeared on Rod Stewart’s solo albums, including Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells A Story, David Bowie’s Pin Ups album, one of Bill Wyman’s solo albums, he’s played with U2, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin and a huge list of the great musicians of rock and blues, including the infamous appearance at Live Aid with Bob Dylan. Ronnie has released over a dozen of his own solo albums, including 1974’s I’ve Got My Own Album To Do, 1979’s Gimme Some Neck, and 2010’s I Feel Like Playing.

ron & keith 2     bill wyman

If there’s one thing more surprising than Rolling Stone Keith Richards surviving into his 60s, it’s that his bandmate Ronnie Wood has done so, too. After all, this is a man so debauched, so obliterated by drink and drugs, and such an all-round pain in the arse that Richards put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. And that was before things got really bad. Seven years ago the Stones guitarist walked out on his wife Jo, who appeared to be the one stabilising influence in his life, and moved in with a teenage girl, and the drink, the drugs, the mood swings all got worse. Many feared the worst.

In a way, he says, he had to completely lose it before recovering his sanity. Many people expected him to run back to Jo and beg forgiveness. Did he? “No, I didn’t. A lot of people were going, ‘You’ve fucked up, you’ve made the worst move of your life’, but I was thinking, ‘There’s something here I’ve got to discover, and that something is me.’ And that was very exciting because I’m much crazier and much more creative when I’m sober.”

He admits there’s been plenty of pain. His relationship with his children broke down; they were furious with him when he walked out. “I’ve had my differences with them,” he admits with rare understatement. But they’ve forgiven him now? “Yeah. I used to worry, ‘I’ve lost my family.’ They hated my for a while, but they’re very resilient. The oldest is 36, the youngest is 28. So they’re all grown and they’ve seen me come through and now they say, ‘OK Dad, we love you, we’re on your side.'”

He was 14 when he started drinking heavily – brandy and whisky. In the 70s he drank himself silly because, despite his apparent insouciance, he says he felt insecure in the Faces. At the end of the 70s he started to freebase cocaine – an early form of crack. And, as he says in his autobiography, that was him done for the next five years. It was during this period that Richards threatened to blow his brains out. “When he thinks you’re out of control, you think, Christ, there must be something wrong.”

ron wood & wife

In 1985, he married his second wife, Jo, and though she was a moderating influence, he still drank. Until 2003, he claimed he had never played a gig sober. In 2008, he left Jo for Russian model Ekaterina Ivanova. The collapse of his marriage could not have been more public or dramatic. Two days after his daughter Leah’s wedding, he ran away with Ekaterina, or Katia as she’s also known. His four children were devastated. The 18 months that followed made the previous 50 seem positively abstemious. In December 2009, he was arrested after witnesses alleged he had tried to throttle Katia during a drunken row in the street. Although she didn’t press charges, that was the end of their relationship. A few weeks later, he was in rehab for the eighth and, he hopes, final time.

ron wood and katia

While he credits his ox-like constitution to his Gypsy background, drink was partly responsible for prematurely seeing off his two brothers. “Lots of the family lived to a ripe old age, but my brothers went in their 60s. My brother Ted was my age when he went and I don’t feel like going. But Ted had given up the will to be ambitious. I’d say, ‘Come on, Ted’…” He trails off.

Wood has famously lost tens of millions of pounds over the years – on wine and women, being a useless businessman and just not caring. Now he’s convinced those days are over. “Looking at the bills on tour when I was using, I’d have the top wines – I should have been a sommelier because I’m a wine expert and I go from the gutter to the throne in my taste in alcohol.” What’s the most he’d spend on a bottle? “A thousand pounds… it didn’t matter.” Has he ever tried to work out how much he’s spent on drink and drugs? “No, I haven’t, because it’s bottomless and it’s pointless to go, ‘Agh.’ It would make me laugh, actually. What, £20m?”

Ron does a  weekly radio show for Absolute Classic Rock. Among other things,  he reminisces about the 60s when great guitarists were 10 a penny. Who was the best – Page, Clapton, Beck, Hendrix? “Jimi [Hendrix] cos he broke all the rules and was such a natural. But Eric was my mainstay because I was a big fan of him with the Yardbirds and I used to share the same girlfriend with him. I got my first wife Krissy from him. We’d always rib each other, ‘Oi, take your hands off my bird.'” Didn’t they also both have a relationship with Pattie Boyd? “Yeah. Amazing, the camaraderie. And the girls. There was another girl in Los Angeles called Cathy. I thought she was my girlfriend but I found out after she was seeing just about every other guitar player on the circuit.”

His face is a map of dissolution – cheeks like quarries, deep grooves running from nose to mouth – but he has the same black hair (now flecked with tiny bits of silver) in the same feather cut he’s always had. At times his energy, enthusiasm and boyish figure make him seem more like a teenager. Today he’s wearing skinny girl’s jeans (28-inch waist), a leopard-skin top, dinky little waistcoat and black cashmere coat. Ronnie Wood is 67 years old.

What about those concave cheeks – are they natural or drug-induced? “I got them from sebaceous cysts while using heroin.” Amazing the poisons I used to put in my body. I used to love it.” His lean figure is, he says, from “drugs, drink, malnutrition. In the States we went past a store in the old days and it said ‘discount food’ and me and my mate both went, ‘Yeah, discount food all together.'”

How come his teeth are so white? “I had them done a few years ago; they trimmed the actual teeth down a bit and put these veneers on top.” By rights they should be nicotine-stained and smack-ravaged? He grins. “Yeah, I said I want the veneer to be white and they said, ‘Oh, it’s not Ronnie Wood to have bloody Hollywood teeth. So we got a built-in stain.”

Since he got clean, Wood has enjoyed a sustained creative splurge – painting (he once sold a work for $1m, and says he could make more from his art now than the Stones), a new album and the radio show. Wood is particularly pleased with the solo album, I Feel Like Playing. Over the decades he has released seven albums and written many songs (notably with Rod Stewart on the singer’s massive 1972 album Never A Dull Moment, and the title track to the Faces album Ooh La La!). Even so, until now, he has been regarded as a wannabe – the Stones rarely record his songs, and he has said the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership feels like a bit of a closed shop. But the recent album is a real breakthrough – his voice is more mature and controlled, and there are a few really great songs. Why You Wanna Go And Do A Thing Like That, co-written with Kris Kristofferson, has the makings of a classic. “Even Rod came down to some of the sessions in LA and said, ‘Ron, you are now crowned a proper vocalist.’ He said, ‘I can’t believe your improvement.’ And Bobby Womack said, ‘Ronnie, you’re choosing the keys for your songs, you’re experimenting’ – cos I used to be like a bull in a china shop, I’ve got an idea and I’m going to sing it: waaaahhhhh!”

ron wood painter

Ronnie’s paintings of musicians and the Rolling Stones in particular command high prices and yet his art is not restricted to just musical subjects. He paints animals as well as portraits of other well-known figures including the large painting of London’s ‘movers and shakers’ that adorns the wall of the capital’s Ivy restaurant. Among those who own original Ronnie Wood artworks are former US President Bill Clinton, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jack Nicholson.

Recently Ronnie said, “I want to live as long as possible. And play and paint better. You never know what you want, but you’re always reaching further and further.” So it seems likely that his best may still be to come.

Which Hall of Famer Once Had a Job Assembling Airplane Bathrooms?

With the 4th of July looming, I decided it might be apt to take a look at someone born on that day,  (No. Not Uncle Sam ) but Bill Withers. Stephen Foster was also an Independence Day baby, but we’ll save him for another time…

In his brief career, Bill Withers wrote some indelible hits, enough to get him inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. But since quitting the music business in the mid-1980s, Withers has been so low-key, so media-shy, that most people wouldn’t recognize him if he sat down next to them. In fact that happened once at a restaurant in Los Angeles.

“Yeah, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles up on Pico. These ladies looked like they had just come from church or something, and they were talking about this Bill Withers song — so, I was going to have some fun with them,” he explains. “I said, ‘I’m Bill Withers.’ And this lady said, ‘You ain’t no Bill Withers. You too light-skinned to be Bill Withers.’ Even after I showed them my driver’s license, they weren’t buying it.”

bill withers and muhammed ali

Withers was honored last year in a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall called “Lean On Him.” Artists performed songs Withers played in that very space four decades ago, the recordings of which would become Live at Carnegie Hall, which Rolling Stone included in its list of the 50 Greatest Live Albums of All Time.

Withers’ hometown is in a poor rural area in one of the poorest states in the Union. His father, who worked in the coal mines, died when Bill was 13. “We lived right on the border of the black and white neighborhood,” he says. “I heard guys playing country music, and in church I heard gospel. There was music everywhere.”

The youngest of six children, Withers was born with a stutter and had a hard time fitting in. “When you stutter, people have a tendency to disregard you,” he says. That was compounded by the unvarnished Jim Crow racism that was a way of life in his youth. “One of the first things I learned, when I was around four, was that if you make a mistake and go into a white women’s bathroom, they’re going to kill your father.” He was a teenager when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago who allegedly whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi, was beaten to death by two men who were cleared of all charges by an all-white jury. “[Till] was right around my age,” says Withers. “I thought, ‘Didn’t he know better?’ ”

Desperate to get out of Slab Fork, he enlisted in the Navy right after graduating from high school in 1956. Harry Truman had desegregated the armed forces eight years earlier, but Withers quickly discovered that didn’t mean much at his first naval base, in Pensacola, Florida. “My first goal was, I didn’t want to be a cook or a steward,” he says. “So I went to aircraft-mechanic school. I still had to prove to people that thought I was genetically inferior that I wasn’t too stupid to drain the oil out of an airplane.”

By the time he was transferred to California in the mid-1960s, he realized he’d never have the courage to quit the Navy if he couldn’t rid himself of his stutter. “I couldn’t get out a word,” he says. “I realized it wasn’t physical. I figured out that my stutter — and this isn’t the case for everyone — was caused by fear of the perception of the listener. I had a much higher opinion of everyone else than I did of myself. I started doing things like imagining everybody naked — all kinds of tricks I used on myself.”

Against all conventional wisdom, it worked (though he still trips over the occasional word), and in 1965 he quit the Navy and became “the first black milkman in Santa Clara County, California.” He eventually took a job at an aircraft parts factory where they assembled airplane bathrooms. As a Navy aircraft mechanic, he was ridiculously overqualified, but “it was all about survival.”

One night around that time, he visited a club in Oakland where Lou Rawls was playing. “He was late, and the manager was pacing back and forth,” says Withers. “I remember him saying, ‘I’m paying this guy $2,000 a week and he can’t show up on time.’ I was making $3 an hour, looking for friendly women, but nobody found me interesting. Then Rawls walked in, and all these women are talking to him.”

Withers was in his late twenties. His music-business experience consisted of sitting in a couple of times with a bar band while stationed in Guam in the Navy. He’d never played the guitar, but he headed to a pawn shop, bought a cheap one and began teaching himself to play. Between shifts at the factory, he began writing his own tunes. “I figured out that you didn’t need to be a virtuoso to accompany yourself,” he says.

He began saving from each paycheck until he had enough to record a crude demo. Withers shopped it around to major labels, which weren’t interested, but then he got a meeting with Clarence Avant, a black music executive who had recently founded the indie label Sussex and had just signed the songwriter Rodriguez (of Searching for Sugar Man fame). “[Withers’] songs were unbelievable,” Avant remembers. “You just had to listen to his lyrics. I gave him a deal and set him up with Booker T. Jones to produce his album.”

Jones, the famous Stax keyboardist, went through his Rolodex and hired the cream of the Los Angeles scene: drummer Jim Keltner, MGs bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, Stephen Stills on guitar. “Bill came right from the factory and showed up in his old brogans and his old clunk of a car with a notebook full of songs,” says Jones. “When he saw everyone in the studio, he asked to speak to me privately and said, ‘Booker, who is going to sing these songs?’ I said, ‘You are, Bill.’ He was expecting some other vocalist to show up.”

Withers was extremely uneasy until Graham Nash walked into the studio. “He sat down in front of me and said, ‘You don’t know how good you are,’ ” Withers says.”I’ll never forget it.” They laid down the basic tracks for what became 1971’s Just As I Am in a few days. (One of the songs was inspired by the 1962 Jack Lemmon-Lee Remick movie Days of Wine and Roses; Withers was watching it on TV, and the doomed relationship at the film’s center brought to mind a phrase: “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.”).

The album’s cover photo was taken during Withers’ lunch break at the factory; you can see him holding his lunch pail. “My co-workers were making fun of me,” he says. “They thought it was a joke.” Still unconvinced that music would pay off, he held on to his day job until he was laid off in the months before the album’s release. Then, one day, “two letters came in the mail. One was asking me to come back to my job. The other was inviting me on to Johnny Carson.” The Tonight Show appearance, in November 1971, helped propel “Ain’t No Sunshine” into the Top 10, and the follow-up, “Grandma’s Hands,” reached Number 42.

By then, Withers was 32; he still marvels at the fact that he was able to come out of nowhere at that relatively advanced age. “Imagine 40,000 people at a stadium watching a football game,” he says. “About 10,000 of them think they can play quarterback. Three of them probably could. I guess I was one of those three.”

He took some earnings, bought a piano and, again, with no training, began fiddling around. One of the first things he came up with was a simple chord progression: “I didn’t change fingers. I just went one, two, three, four –  up and down the piano. It was the first thing I learned to play. Even a tiny child can play that.

Tired of love songs, he wrote a simple ode to friendship called “Lean on Me.” Withers didn’t think much of it. “But the guys at the record company thought it was a single,” he says. It became the centerpiece of his second album, 1972’s Still Bill. The song rocketed to Number One and was inescapable for the entire year.

Withers was now a hot commodity, appearing on Soul Train and the BBC, and headlining a show at Carnegie Hall that was released as a live album. But he refused to hire a manager, insisting on overseeing every aspect of his career, from producing his own songs to writing the liner notes to designing his album covers. “He was so opinionated,” says Avant. “I was the closest thing he had to a manager. Everybody was scared of him.”

“Early on, I had a manager for a couple of months, and it felt like getting a gasoline enema,” says Withers. “Nobody had my interest at heart. I felt like a pawn. I like being my own man.”

In 1973, Withers married Denise Nicholas, a star of the TV show Room 222. It was a rocky relationship from the start. “Their wedding day was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” Avant says. “I remember her semi-crying. She said, ‘He doesn’t love me.’ I said, ‘Bill, what are you doing getting married?’ He said, ‘I want everyone back home to know I’m marrying one of these Hollywood actresses.’ ” Withers and Nicholas had terrible fights, which soon began getting coverage in magazines like Jet; the couple split after little more than a year. Withers poured all of his pain from the breakup into his 1974 LP +’Justments.

Withers was also unhappy on the road. Despite having enormous radio hits, he found himself opening up for incongruous acts like Jethro Tull and making less money than he felt he deserved. Things got worse when Sussex went bankrupt in 1975, and Withers signed a five-record deal with Columbia. “I met my A&R guy, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t like your music or any black music, period,’ ” says Withers. “I am proud of myself because I did not hit him. I met another executive who was looking at a photo of the Four Tops in a magazine. He actually said to me, ‘Look at these ugly niggers.’ ”

At Sussex, he had complete creative control over his music, but at Columbia he found himself in the middle of a large corporation that was second-guessing his moves. As he relives this part of his past, he gets teary. “There were no black executives,” he says. “They’d say shit to me like, ‘Why are there no horns on the song?’ ‘Why is this intro so long?’ . . . This one guy at Columbia, Mickey Eichner, was a huge pain in the ass,” he adds. “He told me to cover Elvis Presley’s ‘In the Ghetto.’ I’m a songwriter! That would be like buying a bartender a drink.”

Eichner, who was the head of Columbia’s A&R department, says he’s “hurt” by Withers’ words, and he has a different recollection of events. “He submitted a record, and we didn’t hear a single,” he says. “I suggested he maybe do an Elvis cover. He’s very stubborn. I believe that a manager would have understood what I was trying to do, but he didn’t have one, so there was nobody I could reason with.” As far as racism at Columbia, Eichner says he doesn’t recall “hearing or seeing anything.”

“My social idol was my older brother,” he says. “He got hurt in the coal mines — he got crushed by a coal cart — so, he wasn’t able to work in there anymore. He was happiest mailman I’ve ever seen in my life. I always wanted to be as happy as he was.”

And yet, Withers isn’t quite sure he’ll ever get there: “I’ve come to the conclusion that in order to be unequivocally happy, you have to have some blind spots.” One thing he can’t forget is his nine years in the Navy, during which many of his friends were sent to Vietnam. His song “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” was a reaction to the war’s lasting effects on those who fought in it.

Withers’ released his first album, Just as I Am, in 1971. It success was led by the hit “Ain’t No Sunshine” — no thanks, he says, to the A&R reps promoting him, who didn’t see the track as a big winner.

“‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ was the B-side. And the disc jockeys, god bless ’em, turned it over, and that’s how I got started,” he says, and then adds a retroactive zinger. “I call A&R ‘antagonistic & redundant,’ and that’s why — because they make those genius decisions like that.”

Withers always did things his way, which could sometimes lead to disputes with his record labels. Finally, after less than 15 years in the business, he just walked away. But to hear him talk about it, he sounds pretty happy being under the radar.

I wasn’t socialized as a musician. It wasn’t the only way I knew how to live,” he says. “You figure I was in my 30s when I started doing this. Now, most people that do this, they start practicing in their basement when they’re 6 years old. I just happened to do some other things — I mean, I build a lot of stuff.”

With the exception of 1977’s Menagerie (which contains the funky classic “Lovely Day”), none of the Columbia albums reached the Top 40. Withers’ 1980 hit “Just the Two of Us” was a duet with Grover Washington Jr. on Elektra – “That was a ‘kiss my ass’ song to Columbia,” says Withers. The low point came during the sessions for his last album, 1985’s Watching You Watching Me. “They made me record that album at some guy’s home studio,” he says. “This stark-naked five-year-old girl was running around the house, and they said to her, ‘We’re busy. Go play with Bill.’ Now, I’m this big black guy and they’re sending a little naked white girl over to play with me! I said, ‘I gotta get out of here. I can’t take this shit!’ ”

Withers hasn’t released a note of music since then, aside from a guest spot on a 2004 Jimmy Buffett song; he has not performed publicly in concert in nearly 25 years. Right now he’s sitting at his kitchen table reading a political blog on his iPad, as CNN runs quietly on a nearby TV. He watches a lot of television, and he especially loves Mike & Molly, The Big Bang Theory and the MSNBC prison documentary series Lockup. “I really have no idea what he does all day,” says his wife, Marcia. “But he does a lot on his iPad. He always knows exactly what’s going on in the world. Whenever I mention anything, he says, ‘Oh, that’s old news.’ ”

Marcia, who met Withers in 1976, runs his publishing company from a tiny office on Sunset Boulevard. “We’re a mom-and-pop shop,” he says. “She’s my only overseer. I’m lucky I married a woman with an MBA.” Since Withers was the sole writer of most of his material, he gets half of every dollar his catalog generates – and “Lean on Me” alone has appeared in innumerable TV shows, movies and commercials. Any licensee that wants to use Withers’ master version of one of his songs needs his approval. “If it’s for a scene in a show where somebody is killed or something, we will turn them down,” says Marcia. “We don’t want people to associate, say, ‘Lean on Me’ with violence.” Technically, it’s possible to license a cover of one of his songs without his consent. “But that’s never happened,” he says. “They don’t want to piss me off.”

Bill and Marcia have invested wisely in L.A. real estate. For the past 17 years, they’ve lived in their 5,000-square-foot house, which has three stories and an elevator and is furnished with pricey-looking African art; they bought the home for $700,000 in 1998, and it’s now worth many times that. It’s crammed with books and mementos from Withers’ career, including a 1974 photo of him with Muhammad Ali. There’s an exercise room on the third floor with several machines, which all look brand-new.

Their home includes a studio in his house, where he says he has continued to make recordings. “I probably have a couple of things laying around,” he says. “It’s like, just because your dog doesn’t bite the mailman doesn’t mean he ain’t still a dog, you know?

Their children, Todd and Kori, are both in their thirties and live nearby. Bill was an active father after he left the music biz, and he’s very close to them. “We’d have James Brown dance parties in our pajamas,” says Kori, “and take cross-country road trips, blasting Chuck Berry songs the whole time.” Withers also occupied himself with construction projects at his investment properties. (“When I moved to New York for college, he built a wall in the middle of my apartment with a door on it,” says Kori. “He’s always building something.”)

bill withers old

He’s turned down more offers for comeback tours than he can count. “What else do I need to buy?” he says. “I’m just so fortunate. I’ve got a nice wife, man, who treats me like gold. I don’t deserve her. My wife dotes on me. I’m very pleased with my life how it is. This business came to me in my thirties. I was socialized as a regular guy. I never felt like I owned it or it owned me.”

He finally did play at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony last April, though. “Says Marcia, “I know he doesn’t like how older people sound when they sing. I don’t push him. People say that I enable him, but he’s just over it. ”