Which Jazz and R&B Legend was Married Seven (or Eight) times?

Today is Dinah Washington’s birthday.

Dinah was at once one of the most beloved and controversial singers of the mid-20th century — beloved to her fans, devotees, and fellow singers; controversial to critics who still accuse her of selling out her art to commerce and bad taste. Her principal sin, apparently, was to cultivate a distinctive vocal style that was at home in all kinds of music, be it R&B, blues, jazz, middle of the road pop — and she probably would have made a fine gospel or country singer had she the time. Hers was a gritty, salty, high-pitched voice, marked by absolute clarity of diction and clipped, bluesy phrasing.Washington’s personal life was turbulent, with seven marriages behind her, and her interpretations showed it, for she displayed a tough, totally unsentimental, yet still gripping hold on the universal subject of lost love. She has had a huge influence on R&B and jazz singers who have followed in her wake, notably Nancy Wilson, Esther Phillips, and Diane Schuur, and her music is abundantly available nowadays via the huge seven-volume series The Complete Dinah Washington on Mercury.

dinah in fur                                          dinah with sheet

Born Ruth Lee Jones, she moved to Chicago at age three and was raised in a world of gospel, playing the piano and directing her church choir. At 15, after winning an amateur contest at the Regal Theatre, she began performing in nightclubs as a pianist and singer, opening at the Garrick Bar in 1942. Talent manager Joe Glaser heard her there and recommended her to Lionel Hampton, who asked her to join his band. Hampton says that it was he who gave Ruth Jones the name Dinah Washington, although other sources claim it was Glaser or the manager of the Garrick Bar. In any case, she stayed with Hampton from 1943 to 1946 and made her recording debut for Keynote at the end of 1943 in a blues session organized by Leonard Feather with a sextet drawn from the Hampton band. With Feather’s “Evil Gal Blues” as her first hit, the records took off, and by the time she left Hampton to go solo, Washington was already an R&B headliner. Signing with the young Mercury label, Washington produced an enviable string of Top Ten hits on the R&B charts from 1948 to 1955, singing blues, standards, novelties, pop covers, even Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” She also recorded many straight jazz sessions with big bands and small combos, most memorably with Clifford Brown on Dinah Jams but also with Cannonball Adderley, Clark Terry, Ben Webster, Wynton Kelly, and the young Joe Zawinul.

‘She was able to get inside any song,’ recalls Joe Zawinul, her early pianist who went on to found the jazz / rock band Weather Report. ‘She cried almost every night when she was singing. She got totally wet from crying and she had the audience crying with her.’

dinah queen

She would demolish musicians who missed notes on stage or who were sloppy in rehearsals. And she would force guest musicians, even the likes of Max Roach, to repeat stumbled passages on stage. Her language became as notorious as her fist fights with club owners and reporters.

Zawinul, though, remembers her as passionately honest and professional, recalling an incident in Odessa, Texas, during segregation when Dinah led the entire band to escape through a bathroom window because Zawinul, the only white musician, was not allowed on stage by the local sheriff. ‘The audience rioted and totally destroyed the club,’ he says, ‘but Dinah didn’t care, she was always totally loyal to her musicians.’

dinah with max

In fact, she married several of them. Nobody seems quite sure if she was married eight or nine times. ‘I’ve been to more Dinah weddings than the rest put together,’ says the singer Patti Austin, Dinah’s god-daughter. ‘She would fall in love with anybody. She might have thrown instruments at musicians but she could as easily shower them with presents. But she had to be tough to survive and she worked on it. I remember a reporter saying that she was the kindest person he had worked with and she screamed at him and told him to write about Dinah the bitch. It wasn’t easy being black, female and famous and she covered herself.’

In 1959, Washington made a sudden breakthrough into the mainstream pop market with “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” a revival of a Dorsey Brothers hit set to a Latin American bolero tune. For the rest of her career, she would concentrate on singing ballads backed by lush orchestrations for Mercury and Roulette, a formula similar to that of another R&B-based singer at that time, Ray Charles, and one that drew plenty of fire from critics even though her basic vocal approach had not changed one iota.

Although her later records could be as banal as any easy listening dross of the period, there are gems to be found, like Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” which has a beautiful, bluesy Ernie Wilkins chart conducted by Quincy Jones.

quincy

In his 2001 biography Q, music legend Quincy Jones vividly describes Washington’s style, saying she “could take the melody in her hand, hold it like an egg, crack it open, fry it, let it sizzle, reconstruct it, put the egg back in the box and back in the refrigerator and you would’ve still understood every single syllable.”

But the singer’s musical gifts were offset by a wild and extravagant personal life. Married seven times, Washington battled weight problems and raced through her profits buying shoes, furs and cars in an effort to lift her spirits.

She was glamorous but never beautiful, perhaps another element which contributed to a growing insecurity. Says Zawinul, ‘She had a beauty in her eyes and she was always well groomed. She had lots of jewellery and made lots of money and carried a pistol every place she went. She was a real modern woman, but she was driving ridiculously fast and there was something in her inner life that troubled her.’

Friday, December 13, 1963 started off like most days in Dinah Washington’s life.  She woke up being her fabulous self and decided to go shopping for Christmas presents, dropping $2,400 in one store alone. Later that day, a mink-trimmed sofa was scheduled to be delivered to the Buena Vista Ave., home she shared with Dick “Night Train” Lane on Detroit’s west side.  Her sons, Bobby and George, were to arrive home from a prestigious Michigan prep school, and Washington looked forward to a quiet evening at home with family and maybe a friend or two.  The friends left, the boys went to bed and the Lane’s retired for the evening with the television still running in their bedroom.

Dick woke up around 3:45 a.m., and found Dinah on the floor.  He tried to revive her but all she let out was one long last blue moan.  Lane called “the doctor” instead of an ambulance, and soon the whole household was upset because they already sensed what the doctor was soon to pronounce: that the Queen had finally abdicated her throne at the age of 39.  Sitting over on the nightstand was one glaring object that wasn’t there the night before – a brand new, open pill bottle. It wasn’t suicide!  She had taken just one pill too many.

There were pills to lose weight, pills to gain weight, pills to sleep, pills to wake up, nerve pills – you name it, there was a pill for it and the doctors were only too happy to prescribe them. Dinah Washington had an aversion to the use of street drugs and there are people who want us to know that her drugs were legal drugs as if that makes it any better. Her system finally weakened under the strain.  The medical examiner’s report showed an excess of barbiturates in her blood, more than twice the normal dosages of amobarbital and secobarbital – two different types of sedatives.  It is thought Washington took them by mistake because they were not properly identified.

She wanted to be laid to rest in Chicago, her exciting adopted hometown. But that monday after her death, there was a memorial service at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.  The Rev. C. L. Franklin handled the services and his daughter Aretha sang a solo as thousands braved the below zero temperatures to pay their last respects.  By the time Dinah’s body arrived in Chicago to lay in state at the United Funeral Home on Sacramento Blvd., thousands more were gathering.  The actual funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, December 18, at 2:00 p.m., at the St. Luke’s Baptist Church, seating capacity 600.

By 2:00, literally thousands of people had jam-packed the church. Mourners had to be escorted from the balcony for fear it would collapse.  Between the two cities, it is estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 or more people viewed Dinah’s body with many more outside freezing in the brutal winter temperatures.

Dinah was laid out in a solid bronze casket wearing a diamond tiara. She was dressed in a yellow chiffon evening dress, a white mink stole, white evening gloves, and her feet were covered in jeweled slippers.

One writer called the funeral a “soul-wrenching, heart-draining, foot-stomping, rocking and shouting going away party.”  Gospel stars Sallie Martin and then the Roberta Martin Singers rocked the house. Mahalia Jackson  sat forlorn and alone & then brought everybody to hysterics during her solo. Clara Ward  had to be restrained in her seat.

There were many celebrities in the church including Ella Fitzgerald, who was spotted in the back of the church with her head hung in grief.

Flamboyant ministers such as the Rev. Clarence Cobb and the infamous Prophet Jones made themselves known in other ways.  Fans grabbed for souvenirs and funeral programs while Rev. Clay Evans grabbed the mike and sternly reminded everyone that “THIS IS NOT A SHOW.”

dinah at mike

Dinah was still in peak voice, still singing the blues in an L.A. club only two weeks before the end.

 

Quincy Jones, who produced Washington many times, has the film rights to her life story. Oprah Winfrey is pencilled in for the lead role. ‘Dinah has left her mark on so many singers today, but she herself sounds as fresh as most of them,’ says Otis. ‘It’s just a question of time until she becomes huge all over again.’

 

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Harmonica Master Toots Thielemans Passes

Belgian harmonica player Toots Thielemans, whose illustrious career included playing with jazz greats like Miles Davis and whose solos have figured on numerous film scores, has died. He was 94.

toots 2

A passing glance at the six-decade career of Jean Baptiste “Toots” Thielemans, suggests a quirky contrarian more than a sophisticated musical virtuoso. Thielemans became famous as a master of two techniques that have otherwise made hardly a mark on jazz history – whistling, and playing the harmonica. The Belgian was no novelty turn, however, but a remarkable musician who adapted the advanced harmonies, hairtrigger accents and nimble melodies of the bebop idiom to a 19th-century Austrian instrument originally intended for the more leisurely rhythms of folk music, and who matched his jazz virtuosity with considerable emotional expressiveness and warmth.

Thielemans recorded with some of the most popular – and technically demanding – artists in jazz, including the bass-guitar virtuoso Jaco Pastorius, the piano maestros Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner, the innovative pop-jazz bandleader Quincy Jones, and the guitar star Pat Metheny. That richly accordion-toned, wittily pitch-bending and sometimes ravishingly romantic harmonica sound (he played a custom-built chromatic instrument that allowed him to roam through three octaves) featured on the soundtracks of movies including Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Sugarland Express (1974) – and brought a steady stream of studio work, including the Sesame Street theme tune, high-profile commercials, and appearances on albums by Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Johnny Mathis, among others.

Born in the Marolles district of Brussels, Thielemans played the accordion from the age of three (eventually as an entertainer in his parents’ cafe) and the harmonica as a teenager, discovering jazz at 18 after hearing Louis Armstrong on record. In the early 1940s, inspired by his fellow Belgian Django Reinhardt, Thielemans also took up the guitar (adopting the nickname “Toots” in this period), performed with Edith Piaf, toured with the American swing giant Benny Goodman’s European band in 1950, and then moved to the US to perform with a Charlie Parker bebop band that included Miles Davis, and become a member of Shearing’s popular quintet. He led the expressive and intelligent Man Bites Harmonica! session in 1951, in classy American company that included the saxophonist Pepper Adams and the pianist Kenny Drew.

In this period, Thielemans also shuttled between the US and Sweden, and in Stockholm in 1961 recorded his much-covered jazz waltz Bluesette – a lilting, ostensibly unjazzy, but subtly blues-inflected theme originally delivered by the composer’s guitar line and pure-toned whistling in unison, a personal sound that became a brand.

Thielemans frequently worked with Jones (then a regular visitor to Sweden) and in the 1970s issued a stream of inventively contemporary albums including the dynamic Images with the pianist Joanne Brackeen. He partnered Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and the popular Cuban Latin-jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera at the Montreux jazz festival in the 70s and early 80s, played with the pianist Bill Evans’s trio on Affinity in 1979 (one of his favourite sessions) and also made a superb bop-oriented 1980 live album with Peterson’s sidemen Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on guitar and bass.

Subsequently, Thielemans led both European and American quartets – the latter featuring the elite Evans-inspired piano trio of Fred Hersch, the bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Joey Baron. That group featured on the Belgian’s 1988 Concord recording Only Trust Your Heart, a jewel of a session contemporary enough to include Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and creative enough to impart characteristic twists to Thelonious Monk’s classic Little Rootie Tootie. In 1992 Thielemans performed on Metheny’s intimate Secret Story, and on The Brasil Project with Brazilian stars including Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil.

Still possessed of his old wit and lyrical elegance into the 21st century, Thielemans made a sequence of fine recordings with a sensitive group including the Dutch bassist Hein Van de Geyn and the pianist Karel Boehlee. In 2009, the US National Endowment for the Arts made him a Jazz Master. His 90th birthday guests at Lincoln Center in 2012 included Herbie Hancock and the Brazilian singer-pianist Eliane Elias, and he continued to play in public until declining health led to his retirement two years later.

Thielemans hung up his harmonica in 2014 as health problems linked to his age made it more difficult for him to take to the stage.

Thielemans died in his sleep in a Belgian hospital on Monday, his manager said. He was hospitalized last month after a fall, but had been in good spirits after an operation on his shoulder.

“He was so happy. He was doing well,” manager Veerle Van de Poel said.

“We were very surprised” by his passing, she said. “He was sleeping, and he did not wake this morning.”

Born in Brussels on April 29, in 1922, Jean-Baptiste Frederic Isidore Thielemans started playing the harmonica as a hobby and got “contaminated” by the jazz virus during the German occupation, according to his website.

His first international breakthrough came in 1950 when he joined Benny Goodman on a European concert tour. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1952, joining Charlie Parker’s All Stars. He also played with other jazz greats, including Ella Fitzgerald, and mainstream stars like Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Billy Joel.

His harmonica solos figure on many film scores, including Midnight Cowboy, The Getaway and Sugarland Express, and also on the theme music to the children’s TV series Sesame Street.

Thielemans, who also played guitar, was honored by Belgium’s royal family in 2001, when King Albert II gave him the title of baron.

Belgium’s royal family said it was “deeply moved by (the) passing away of Toots Thielemans, one of the greatest jazzmen.”

“We have lost a great musician, a heartwarming personality. All my thoughts are with the family and friends of Toots Thielemans,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted.

On the liner notes of one album, Quincy Jones said he believes “without hesitation that Toots is one of the greatest musicians of our time. On his instrument he ranks with the best that jazz has ever produced. He goes for the heart and makes you cry.”

A jazz festival held in his name was due to take place from Sept. 9-11 in the town of La Hulpe, about 16 miles southeast of Brussels, where Thielemans lived.

 

Which Major Blues Musician Stuttered All his Life?

He was beloved worldwide as the king of the endless boogie, a genuine blues superstar whose droning, hypnotic one-chord grooves were at once both ultra-primitive and timeless. But John Lee Hooker recorded in a great many more styles than that over a career that stretched across more than half a century.

Hooker’s date of birth is the subject of debate He is believed to have been born in Tutwiler, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, although some sources cite his birthplace as being near Clarksdale, Coahoma County, the youngest of the eleven children of William Hooker (1871–after 1923), a sharecropper and Baptist preacher, and Minnie Ramsey (circa 1880–date of death unknown). The Hooker official website, however, indicates he was born on August 22, 1917.

John Lee Hooker (like B.B. King) turned to music at an early age as he struggled with stuttering. He was dogged by this for most of his life. The stutter didn’t manifest itself when he was singing.

The Hooker children were home-schooled. Since they were only permitted to listen to religious songs, the spirituals sung in church were their earliest exposure to music. In 1921, his parents separated. The next year, his mother married William Moore, a blues singer who provided Hooker with his first introduction to the guitar (and whom John would later credit for his distinctive playing style).Moore was his first significant blues influence. He was a local blues guitarist, who learned in Shreveport, Louisiana, to play a droning, one-chord blues that was strikingly different from the Delta blues of the time.At the age of 14, John Lee Hooker ran away from home, reportedly never seeing his mother or stepfather again.

JLH young

Hooker heard Memphis calling while he was still in his teens, but he couldn’t gain much of a foothold there. So he relocated to Cincinnati for a seven-year stretch before making the big move to the Motor City in 1943. Jobs were plentiful, but Hooker drifted away from day gigs in favor of playing his unique free-form brand of blues. A burgeoning club scene along Hastings Street didn’t hurt his chances any.

jlh acoustic

In the mid 1930s, Hooker lived in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked on Beale Street at the New Daisy Theatre and occasionally performed at house parties.He worked in factories in various cities during World War II, eventually landing a job in 1943 at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. He frequented the blues clubs and bars on Hastings Street, the heart of the black entertainment district on Detroit’s east side. In a city noted for its pianists, guitar players were scarce. Hooker’s popularity grew quickly performing in Detroit clubs and, seeking a louder instrument than his acoustic guitar, he bought his first electric guitar

“The Hook” was a Mississippi native who became the top gent on the Detroit blues circuit in the years following World War II. The seeds for his eerily mournful guitar sound were planted by his stepfather,Will Moore, while Hooker was in his teens. Hooker had been singing spirituals before that, but the blues took hold and simply wouldn’t let go. Overnight visitors left their mark on the youth, too: legends like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Blind Blake, who all knew Moore.

In 1948, the aspiring bluesman hooked up with entrepreneur Bernie Besman, who helped him hammer out his solo debut sides, “Sally Mae” and its seminal flip, “Boogie Chillen.” This was blues as primitive as anything then on the market; Hooker’s dark, ruminative vocals were backed only by his own ringing, heavily amplified guitar and insistently pounding foot. Their efforts were quickly rewarded. Los Angeles-based Modern Records issued the sides and “Boogie Chillen” — a colorful, unique travelogue of Detroit’s blues scene — made an improbable jaunt to the very peak of the R&B charts.

Modern released several more major hits by “the Boogie Man” after that: “Hobo Blues” and its raw-as-an-open wound flip, “Hoogie Boogie”; “Crawling King Snake Blues” (all three 1949 smashes); and the unusual 1951 chart-topper “I’m in the Mood,” where Hooker overdubbed his voice three times in a crude early attempt at multi-tracking.

But Hooker never, ever let something as meaningless as a contract stop him for making recordings for other labels. His early catalog is stretched across a road map of diskeries so complex that it’s nearly impossible to fully comprehend (a vast array of recording aliases don’t make things any easier).

Along with Modern, Hooker recorded for King (as the geographically challenged Texas Slim), Regent (as Delta John, a far more accurate handle), Savoy (as the wonderfully surreal Birmingham Sam & His Magic Guitar), Danceland (as the downright delicious Little Pork Chops), Staff (as Johnny Williams), Sensation (for whom he scored a national hit in 1950 with “Huckle Up, Baby”), Gotham, Regal, Swing Time, Federal, Gone (as John Lee Booker), Chess, Acorn (as the Boogie Man), Chance, DeLuxe (as Johnny Lee), JVB, Chart, and Specialty; before finally settling down at Vee-Jay in 1955 under his own name. Hooker became the point man for the growing Detroit blues scene during this incredibly prolific period, recruiting guitarist Eddie Kirkland as his frequent duet partner while still recording for Modern.

Once tied in with Vee-Jay, the rough-and-tumble sound of Hooker’s solo and duet waxings was adapted to a band format. Hooker had recorded with various combos along the way before, but never with sidemen as versatile and sympathetic as guitarist Eddie Taylor and harpist Jimmy Reed, who backed him at his initial Vee-Jay date that produced “Time Is Marching” and the superfluous sequel “Mambo Chillun.”

Taylor stuck around for a 1956 session that elicited two genuine Hooker classics, “Baby Lee” and “Dimples,” and he was still deftly anchoring the rhythm section (Hooker’s sense of timing was his and his alone, demanding big-eared sidemen) when the Boogie Man finally made it back to the R&B charts in 1958 with “I Love You Honey.”

Vee-Jay presented Hooker in quite an array of settings during the early ’60s. His grinding, tough blues “No Shoes” proved a surprisingly sizable hit in 1960, while the storming “Boom Boom,” his top seller for the firm in 1962 (it even cracked the pop airwaves), was an infectious R&B dance number benefiting from the reported presence of some of Motown’s house musicians. But there were also acoustic outings aimed squarely at the blossoming folk-blues crowd, as well as some attempts at up-to-date R&B that featured highly intrusive female background vocals (allegedly by the Vandellas) and utterly unyielding structures that hemmed Hooker in unmercifully.

British blues bands such as the Animals and Yardbirds idolized Hooker during the early ’60s; Eric Burdon’s boys cut a credible 1964 cover of “Boom Boom” that outsold Hooker’s original on the American pop charts. Hooker visited Europe in 1962 under the auspices of the first American Folk Blues Festival, leaving behind the popular waxings “Let’s Make It” and “Shake It Baby” for foreign consumption.

Back home, Hooker cranked out gems for Vee-Jay through 1964 (“Big Legs, Tight Skirt,” one of his last offerings on the logo, was also one of his best), before undergoing another extended round of label-hopping (except this time, he was waxing whole LPs instead of scattered 78s). Verve-Folkways, Impulse, Chess, and BluesWay all enticed him into recording for them in 1965-1966 alone! His reputation among hip rock cognoscenti in the States and abroad was growing exponentially, especially after he teamed up with blues-rockers Canned Heat for the massively selling album Hooker ‘n’ Heat in 1970.

Eventually, though, the endless boogie formula grew incredibly stagnant. Much of Hooker’s 1970s output found him laying back while plodding rock-rooted rhythm sections assumed much of the work load. A cameo in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers was welcome, if far too short.

The HealerJLH WITH BLUES BROS.

But Hooker wasn’t through; not by a long shot. With the expert help of slide guitarist extraordinaire/producer Roy Rogers, the Hook waxed The Healer, an album that marked the first of his guest star-loaded albums (Carlos Santana,Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray were among the luminaries to cameo on the disc, which picked up a Grammy).

Mr. LuckyJLH WITH SANTANA

Major labels were just beginning to take notice of the growing demand for blues records, and Pointblank snapped Hooker up, releasing Mr. Lucky (this time teaming Hooker with everyone from Albert Collins and John Hammond to Van Morrison and Keith Richards). Once again, Hooker was resting on his laurels by allowing his guests to wrest much of the spotlight away from him on his own album, but by then, he’d earned it. Another Pointblank set, Boom Boom, soon followed.

Chill Out (Things Gonna Change)JLH with Keith

Happily, Hooker enjoyed the good life throughout the ’90s. He spent much of his time in semi-retirement, splitting his relaxation time between several houses acquired up and down the California coast. When the right offer came along, though, he took it, including an amusing TV commercial for Pepsi. He also kept recording, releasing such star-studded efforts as 1995’s Chill Out and 1997’s Don’t Look Back. All this helped him retain his status as a living legend, and he remained an American musical icon; and his stature wasn’t diminished in his final years.

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He lived the last years of his life in Long Beach, California. In 1997, he opened a nightclub in San Francisco’s Fillmore District called John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room, after one of his hits.
Hooker fell ill just before a tour of Europe in 2001 and died in his sleep on June 21. He is believed to have been two months shy of his 89th birthday. He was interred at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California.

What Singer/Songwriter Got his Start Writing Songs for $25 a Week?

Yesterday, August 20, was John Hiatt’s 64th birthday (as well as Robert Plant, Country -Rock guitar whiz Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Country legend Jim Reeves,  Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy, as well as Soul Man Isaac Hayes.

Hiatt was born in 1952 to Ruth and Robert Hiatt, the sixth of seven children in a Roman Catholic family from Indianapolis. When he was nine years old, Hiatt’s 21-year-old brother Michael committed suicide. Only two years later, his father died after a long sickness. To escape from the stress of his early life, Hiatt watched IndyCar racing and listened to Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and the blues. In his youth, Hiatt reports that he and several others stole a Ford Thunderbird, a crime for which he was caught by the owners but got away with, posing as a hitchhiker. He learned to play the guitar when he was eleven, and began his musical career in Indianapolis, Indiana as a teenager. He played in a variety of local clubs, most notably the Hummingbird. Hiatt played with a variety of bands, including The Four-Fifths and John Lynch & the Hangmen  He began drinking around this time which eventually led to alcoholism that dogged him for many years

 

John Hiatt’s sales have never quite matched his reputation. Hiatt’s songs were covered successfully by everyone from Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Milsap, and Dr. Feelgood to Iggy Pop, Three Dog Night, and the Neville Brothers, yet it took him 13 years to reach the charts himself. Of course, it took him nearly that long to find his own style. Hiatt began his solo career in 1974, and over the next decade he ran through a number of different styles, from rock & roll to new wave pop, before he finally settled on a rootsy fusion of rock & roll, country, blues, and folk with his 1987 album Bring the Family. Though the album didn’t set the charts on fire, it became his first album to reach the charts, and several of the songs on the record became hits for other artists, including Raitt and Milsap. Following its success, Hiatt became a reliable hit songwriter for other artists, and he developed a strong cult following that continued to gain strength into the mid-’90s.

While he was growing up in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, Hiatt played in a number of garage bands. Initially, he was inspired by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, and the music of those two artists would echo strongly throughout his work. Out of all the bar bands he played with in the late ’60s, a group called the White Ducks was the one that received the most attention. He wrote his first song in 1963 entitled “Beth Ann.”

John Hiatt e

He moved to Nashville, Tennessee when he was 18 years old and got a job as a songwriter for the Tree-Music Publishing Company for $25 a week. Hiatt, who was unable to read or write scores, had to record all 250 songs he wrote for the company.Following his high school graduation, he moved to Nashville at the age of 18, where he landed a job as a songwriter for Tree Publishing. Since then he has released 21 studio albums, two compilation albums and one live album. His songs have been covered by a variety of artists in multiple genres, including Bob Dylan, The Searchers, Delbert McClinton, Willy DeVille, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Joe Bonamassa, Willie Nelson, Three Dog Night, Joan Baez, Paula Abdul, Buddy Guy, the Desert Rose Band, Jimmy Buffett, Mandy Moore, Iggy Pop, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rosanne Cash, Suzy Bogguss, Jewel,Aaron Neville, Jeff Healey, Keith Urban, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan, Paulini and many others. The Dutch singer/songwriter Ilse DeLange recorded the album Dear John with nine of his songs. and Three Dog Night, who took Hiatt’s “Sure as I’m Sittin’ Here” to number 16 in the summer of 1974. Eventually, his manager secured him an audition at Epic Records, and the label signed him in 1974, releasing his debut album, Hangin’ Around the Observatory, later that year. Despite their critical acclaim, neither Hangin’ Around the Observatory nor its 1975 follow-up, Overcoats, sold many copies, and he was dropped by the label. By the end of the year, Tree Publishing had let him go as well.

john haitt overcoats

Following his failure in Nashville, Hiatt moved out to California. By the summer of 1978 he had settled in Los Angeles, where began playing in clubs, opening for folk musicians including Leo Kottke. With Kottke’s assistance, Hiatt hired a new manager, Denny Bruce, who helped him secure a record contract with MCA Records. Slug Line, his first record for MCA, was released in the summer of 1979. Where his first two records were straight-ahead rock & roll and folk-rock, Slug Line was in the new wave vein of angry English singer/songwriters like Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Joe Jackson, as if Hiatt was vying for the role of the American angry young man. The new approach earned some strong reviews, yet it failed to generate any sales. Two Bit Monsters, his second MCA album, faced the same situation. Although it was well received critically upon its 1980 release, it made no impression on the charts, and the label dropped him.

 

Apart from working on Two Bit Monsters, Hiatt spent most of 1980 as a member of Ry Cooder’s backing band, playing rhythm guitar on the Borderline album and touring with the guitarist. Hiatt stayed with Cooder throughout 1981, signing a new contract with Geffen Records by the end of the year. Produced by Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T. Rex), his Geffen debut All of a Sudden was released in 1982, followed by the Nick Lowe/Scott Matthews and Ron Nagel-produced Riding with the King in 1983. As with his previous records for Epic and MCA, neither of his first two Geffen releases sold well. By this time, Hiatt’s personal life was beginning to spin out of control as he was sinking deep into alcoholism. Around the time he completed 1985’s Warming Up to the Ice Age, his second wife committed suicide. Following the release of Warming Up to the Ice Age, Hiatt was dropped by Geffen. By the end of 1985, he had entered a rehabilitation program. During 1986, he remarried and signed a new deal with A&M Records.

haitt slug line

For his A&M debut, Hiatt assembled a small band comprised of his former associates Ry Cooder (guitar), Nick Lowe (bass), and Jim Keltner (drums). Recorded over the course of a handful of days, the resulting album, Bring the Family, had a direct, stripped-down rootsy sound that differed greatly from his earlier albums. Upon its summer 1987 release, Bring the Family received the best reviews of his career and, for once, the reviews began to pay off, as the album turned into a cult hit, peaking at 107 on the U.S. charts; it was his first charting album. Hiatt attempted to record a follow-up with Cooder, Lowe, and Keltner, but the musicians failed to agree on the financial terms for the sessions. Undaunted, he recorded an album with John Doe, David Lindley, and Dave Mattacks, but he scrapped the completed project, deciding that the result was too forced. Hiatt’s final attempt at recording the follow-up to Bring the Family was orchestrated by veteran producer Glyn Johns, who had him record with his touring band the Goners. Despite all of the behind-the-scenes troubles behind its recording, the follow-up album, Slow Turning, actually appeared rather quickly, arriving in the summer of 1988.

Slow Turning, like Bring the Family before it, received nearly unanimous positive reviews and it was fairly well received commercially, spending 31 weeks on the U.S. charts and peaking at 98. Within the next year, Hiatt successfully toured throughout America and Europe, strengthening his fan base along the way. Inspired by the success of Hiatt’s two A&M albums, Geffen released the compilation Y’ All Caught? The Ones That Got Away 1979-85 in 1989. That same year, other artists began digging through Hiatt’s catalog of songs, most notably Bonnie Raitt, who covered “Thing Called Love” for her multi-platinum comeback album, Nick of Time.

In 1990, Hiatt returned with Stolen Moments, which was nearly as successful as Slow Turning, both critically and commercially. “Bring Back Your Love to Me,” an album track from Stolen Moments that was also recorded by Earl Thomas Conley, won BMI’s 1991 Country Music Award. By the time “Bring Back Your Love to Me” won that award, it had become a standard practice for artists to cover Hiatt’s songs, as artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Ronnie Milsap, Suzy Bogguss, and Iggy Pop all covered his songs in the early ’90s. In 1993, Rhino Records released Love Gets Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt, which collected many of the cover versions that were recorded during the ’80s and ’90s.

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During 1991, the group that recorded Bring the Family — Hiatt, Cooder, Lowe, and Keltner — re-formed as a band called Little Village, releasing their eponymous debut in early 1992. Based on the success of Bring the Family and Hiatt’s A&M albums, expectations for Little Village were quite high, yet the record and its supporting tour were considered a major disappointment. Later, the individual members would agree that the band was a failure, mainly due to conflicting egos.

Hiatt decided to back away from the superstar nature of Little Village for his next album, 1993’s Perfectly Good Guitar. Recorded in just two weeks with a backing band comprised of members of alternative rock bands School of Fish and Wire Train, the album was looser than any record since Bring the Family, but it didn’t quite have the staying power of its two predecessors, spending only 11 weeks on the charts and peaking at number 47. The following year, he released his first live album, Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan? Hiatt left A&M Records after the release of the record, signing with Capitol Records the following year.

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Walk On, Hiatt’s first Capitol album, was recorded during his supporting tour for Perfectly Good Guitar and featured guest appearances by the Jayhawks and Bonnie Raitt. The record entered the charts at 48, but slipped from there in nine weeks, indicating that his audience had settled into a dedicated cult following. Fittingly, after 1997’s Little Head quickly came and went in the marketplace, Hiatt parted ways with Capitol, and his next album, 2000’s Crossing Muddy Waters, was released on the established independent imprint Vanguard Records. After a second album with Vanguard, The Tiki Bar Is Open, Hiatt aligned himself with another independent label, New West, for the release of his 2003 set, Beneath This Gruff Exterior. Master of Disaster, along with CD and DVD versions of Live from Austin, TX, followed in 2005 but his 18th studio album, Same Old Man, didn’t appear until 2008.

Hiatt & Lovett

However, when The Open Road arrived early in 2010, it signified the start of a prolific period for the artist, and featured Patty Griffin collaborator Doug Lancio on guitar. Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns followed in 2010 and was recorded and produced in Nashville by Kevin Shirley (Aerosmith, the Black Crowes). Next, Mystic Pinball arrived in the fall of 2012; again produced by Shirley, it debuted at 39 on the Billboard 200. Lancio oversaw the sessions for Hiatt’s subsequent album, a largely acoustic-based set entitled Terms of My Surrender, which was released by New West on July 15, 2014.

Which Influential Rock Guitarist Says He was “Telepathically Contacted” in 1982?

Slashing his speakers to create that distorted “You Really Got Me” sound, Davies has clearly been thinking outside the box from the early Kinks days onward. In the late Seventies, Davies became deeply interested in telepathy and mental visualization, and claims to have used these concepts to energize or heal concert audiences many times since then. In 1982, he was telepathically contacted by “five distinct intelligences” from another dimension, who significantly enhanced his consciousness and taught him the principles of “etheric magnetism.” Davies loves to scan the skies for UFOs, and extraterrestrial elements abound on Purusha and the Spiritual Planet, the techno/dance/New Age record he recorded in 1998 with his son Russell. DD is going strong in 2016.

Davies was born at 6 Denmark Terrace, Muswell Hill, North London on February 3, 1947.He was born the last of eight children, including six older sisters and an older brother, later band mate Ray. As children, the Davies brothers were immersed in a world of different musical styles, from the music hall of their parents’ generation, to the jazz and early rock n’ roll that their older sisters listened to. The siblings developed a rivalry early on, with both brothers competing for their parents’ and sisters’ attention.

Davies learned the guitar and played his first show with his older brother, Ray Davies, at the age of 13.

Davies grew up playing skiffle, but soon bought an electric guitar and started experimenting with rock. The Davies brothers and friend Pete Quaife jammed together in the front room of their house. Activities in the Davies household centred around this front room, culminating in large parties, where Davies’ parents would sing and play piano together. The front room and these parties were musically nurturing to the Davies brothers, later influencing the Kinks’ interpretations of the traditional British music hall style. Dave and his brother worked out the famous two-chord riff of their 1964 hit, “You Really Got Me”, on the piano in the front room.

Ray and Dave Davies remained the only two steady members of the band (with the exception of Avory until his departure) throughout their run together. They were accompanied by an oft-changing roster of bassists and keyboardists. Davies played a largely subordinate role to his brother, often staying behind the scenes. Davies would make occasional contributions on Kinks records as lead vocalist and songwriter, with classics such as “Party Line” (the lyrics were written by Ray Davies and the song has been attributed to Ray on many editions of “Face to Face”) and “Death of a Clown.”

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Davies was solely responsible for the signature distorted power chord sound on the Kinks’ first hit, “You Really Got Me”. He achieved the sound by using a razor blade to slit the speaker cone on his Elpico amplifier, which he then ran through a larger Vox as a “pre-amp.” This sound was one of the first mainstream appearances of guitar distortion, which was to have a major influence on many later musicians, especially in heavy metal and punk rock.

“You Really Got Me” was the group’s third released single, after two previous recordings that failed to chart. They had a three-single contract with Pye Records, and needed a hit to get another. Pye didn’t like the song and refused to pay for studio time.The band arranged other financial support to cut the single, which became a massive hit, topping the charts in the UK and reaching #7 in the U.S.

The Kinks released their self-titled debut album in 1964, and embarked on a world tour a year later. While the band came together seamlessly enough, conflict was always in the background. A rivalry had festered between the Davies brothers since childhood, and Dave Davies and drummer Mick Avory soon developed a tumultuous relationship, as well. They fought on stage during their first tour, when, after playing one song, Davies insulted Avory and toppled his drum set. Avory struck Davies with his cymbal stand, knocked him unconscious and caused a gash that required 16 stitches. Later that year, the American Federation of Musicians denied the group the permits required to play in the United States, and although they didn’t specify the reason, many believed it was because of these kinds of incidents.

In spite of internal feuds, the band was garnering both commercial and critical acclaim. Although he often took a backseat to his brother, Dave Davies was an excellent musician in his own right. With his signature, dissonant chord in “You’ve Really Got Me,” he influenced musicians of the day by being the first mainstream guitarist to use distortion on an album. In the past, as a member of the Kinks, Dave Davies had only released his own compositions on B-sides and as part of albums. The Kinks’record label sensed potential sales in a solo release from the overlooked Davies, and issued “Death of a Clown” as his debut. Although credited to Davies, it was technically a Kinks recording, as his backing band was the Kinks.

The Kinks released three albums and several EPs in the next two years. They also performed and toured relentlessly, headlining package tours with the likes of the Yardbirds and Mickey Finn, which caused tension within the band. Some legendary on-stage fights erupted during this time as well. The most notorious incident was at the Capitol Theatre, Cardiff, Wales, in May 1965, involving drummer Mick Avory and Dave Davies. The fight broke out during the second number of the set, “Beautiful Delilah”. It culminated with Davies insulting Avory and kicking over his drum set after finishing the first song, “You Really Got Me”. Avory responded by knocking down Davies with his hi-hat stand, rendering him unconscious. He then fled from the scene, and Davies was taken to Cardiff Royal Infirmary, where he received 16 stitches to the head. Avory later claimed that it was part of a new act in which the band members would hurl their instruments at each other.

During the late 1960s the group steadily evolved, as Ray’s songwriting skills developed and he began to lead the group in a whole new direction.The group abandoned the traditional R&B/blues sound and adopted a more nostalgic, reflective style of music, as showcased on songs like “Autumn Almanac” and “Waterloo Sunset”, as well as their albums, such as Something Else by the Kinks and The Village Green Preservation Society.

In spite of internal feuds, the band was garnering both commercial and critical acclaim. Although he often took a backseat to his brother, Dave Davies was an excellent musician in his own right. With his signature, dissonant chord in “You’ve Really Got Me,” he influenced musicians of the day by being the first mainstream guitarist to use distortion on an album. In the past, as a member of the Kinks, Dave Davies had only released his own compositions on B-sides and as part of albums. The Kinks’record label sensed potential sales in a solo release from the overlooked Davies, and issued “Death of a Clown” as his debut. Although credited to Davies, it was technically a Kinks recording, as his backing band was the Kinks.

Upon its release, “Death of a Clown” rose to number three on the UK Singles Chart. Wanting to profit off of the new buzz suddenly surrounding Davies, a solo LP was slated for release some time in 1968 or 1969. The follow-up single, “Susannah’s Still Alive”, was released in November 1967; however, it only reached #20 on the Melody Maker chart. The release of the solo album was held back, and it was decided to wait and see how another single would fare. As anticipation grew for the release of the new LP, it was nicknamed A Hole in the Sock Of.] “Lincoln County” was chosen as the next single, but failed to chart. By the time a fourth single “Hold My Hand” met with the same result, a combination of Davies’ own lack of interest in continuing and Pye’s decision to stop killed off any hopes of an album.

Eventually the tracks intended for Davies’ first solo album were assembled for a 2011 compilation by Andrew Sandoval entitled Hidden Treasures. It combined the singles, B-sides that were released for various Kinks singles and a handful of album tracks that Dave had recorded for Kinks albums. Three tracks included on “Hidden Treasures” had never been released before until this compilation “Do You Wish To Be A Man”, “Crying” and “Are You Ready”. Many of these tracks had been assembled previously for “The Album That Never Was” released in 1987 but this album primarily consisted of the released singles and b-sides that Davies recorded and released from 1967-1969.

In 1970, the Kinks scored a massive international hit with :Lola.” The story of a transvestite was very controversial at that time, and many stations, particularly below the Mason Dixon Line. In spite of that, it was a huge success. In 1980 a version of this song on  the “One for the Road – Kinks Live” got enormous airplay resulting in a Billboard Top 10 Album.

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur were released in 1968 and 1969, respectively. Although they received unanimous acclaim,Village Green failed to chart internationally, and Arthur was met with a mediocre commercial reception. These records, although praised by critics and the rock press, were commercial failures.

in 1970. Dave recorded two songs of his own for this LP, the acoustic “Strangers” and the hard-rocking “Rats”. The rootsy country-rock, and Americana themed Muswell Hillbillies was released in late 1971, and was well-received with critics, but failed to sell strongly. Their next five albums, Everybody’s in Show-Biz,Preservation: Act 1, Preservation: Act 2, The Kinks Present A Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace, which added a large theatrical ensemble, were critical and commercial failures.

Davies made several attempts at solo albums throughout the ’70s, but he never felt enough enthusiasm or interest to see the projects through. He would often act as the producer and engineer at the Kinks’ main studio, Konk, in his spare time, producing albums for the likes of several popular rockers of the day.  Ray Davies commented on his brother’s studio and solo work in a November 1975 interview:

My brother is all right, his life is dedicated to getting the [Konk] studio together. He’s really into that. He’s started recording, but I might even have to get a contract with him and say he’s got to deliver [a solo] album. It may be the only way he’s going to record is at gunpoint.

— in Hit Parader Magazine

The Kinks left RCA Records in 1977, switching to Arista. The group shed all of the extra backing vocalists and brass instrumentalists that had accompanied them throughout their theatrical years, and reverted to a five-piece rock group again. Their debut LP for Arista was entitled Sleepwalker, and was a commercial and critical comeback for the group. It was the first album in what critics usually call the “arena rock” phase of the group, in which more commercial and mainstream production techniques would be employed.Dave later commented that he was glad to be back to more guitar-oriented songs, and he has listed Sleepwalker as one of his favourites. His composition and earnest, almost desperate lead vocals, not to mention his particularly ripping lead guitar sound, led to airplay — especially on college stations — for his idealistic “Trust Your Heart” on the 1978 Misfits album.

Davies would see the group through both success and failure, as they reached their commercial peak in the early 1980s. The group began adjusting their commercial methods, embracing the MTV culture that was selling records at the time. The music video for their 1982/83 single “Come Dancing” helped hoist the record to #12 on the UK charts, and #6 in the U.S — their biggest hit since “Tired of Waiting for You” in 1965. The song was a nostalgic look back at childhood memories of the Davies brothers, remembering their elder sisters going out to dance at the local palais, and coming back home to the front room at 6 Denmark Terrace.  dave d 2

The Kinks’ popularity faltered in 1985, and soon their records ceased to chart altogether. Mick Avory left the band after the Kinks’ last album for Arista, Word of Mouth, mainly due to the growing animosity between him and Dave Davies.Ray Davies said that Avory was his best friend in the band and he unwillingly had to choose sides, as said later in a 1989 interview:

The saddest day for me was when Mick left. Dave and Mick didn’t get along. There were terrible fights, and I got to the point where I couldn’t cope with it any more…Mick had an important sound. Mick wasn’t a great drummer, but he was a jazz drummer — same school, same era as Charlie Watts.

Bob Henrit was brought in to take Avory’s place. At Ray Davies’ invitation Avory agreed to manage Konk Studios, where he also served as a producer and occasional contributor on later Kinks albums.

The group switched to MCA (US) and London (UK) records in late 1985, and began work on their next album, Think Visual. The record was released in 1986, but only reached #81 on the Billboard charts. Critics were lukewarm towards it, and it did not receive significant radio play. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic.com later commented that the album “represented an artistic dead end for the Kinks, as Ray Davies continued to crank out a series of competent, but undistinguished hard rockers.” Dave Davies contributed two songs to Think Visual, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Cities” and “When You were a Child”. Rock ‘n’ Roll Cities was chosen in the US as the lead single for Think Visual, and at its release it received a fair amount of play on mainstream rock radio. Davies and Mick Avory seemingly reconciled, as Davies asked him back to play drums on this track.

The group recorded several more records for MCA, their last studio effort for them being 1989’s UK Jive. UK Jive was received slightly better than Think Visual, but it failed to enter into the Top 100. Dave Davies contributed the song “Dear Margaret” to the vinyl record — the cassette and CD of the album also contained two further Dave Davies songs, “Bright Lights” and “Perfect Strangers”.

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The group left MCA and struggled to find a record label that would accept them. All four original members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, but this failed to revive their career. Eventually the Kinks signed to Columbia records, who released their final studio album together, Phobia, on 13 April 1993. Despite lots of publicity pushing and press attention, the record was unsuccessful, peaking at #166. Singles released failed to chart as well, mainly due to a record label mix-up that delivered the records to store a few weeks late. To Phobia Davies contributed the songs “It’s Alright (Don’t Think About It)” and “Close to the Wire”.

Columbia dropped the group in 1994, forcing them to retreat back to their old Konk Records. The group released To The Bone on the small independent Grapevine Records in 1994.

The Kinks took a break from recording and touring in 1996. Ray and Dave reunited onstage to perform “You Really Got Me” onstage at the Islington Assembly Hall in London on 18 December 2015. Rolling Stone magazine called their performance “rousing”.

After the aborted solo effort, Davies’ solo career was not revived until 1980, with the release of Dave Davies (AFL1-3603), which featured Davies performing all the instruments by himself. The album, named after its own serial number, peaked at #42 on the Billboard 200. He went on to release Glamour (1981), which charted at #152. Davies brought in a back-up band to play with him on this record. Chosen People was released in 1983, but failed to crack the Billboard 200.

Davies had a stroke in 2004 while leaving an interview at the BBC. He has since recovered almost completely and continues to write and record music.

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Davies released his first true solo studio album in twenty years, Bug, in 2002. Fractured Mindz followed in January 2007, his first album of all new material in nearly five years. It was also his first new studio effort since his stroke in the summer of 2004 besides the track “God in my Brain” (which was recorded and released on the compilation album Kinked in January 2006).

Two Worlds was recorded throughout 2010 by The Aschere Project, the production team of Dave Davies and his son Russ Davies. Both members wrote, produced, and recorded all the tracks. About the album’s genre, Dave stated “it’s a mixture of rock, kinda classical and electronic music.” In February 2010, Davies released an autobiographical DVD filmed by his other son, titled Mystical Journey. His planned US tour in support of the release was postponed per doctor’s advice.It was announced in February 2013 that on 4 June 2013, Davies would be releasing his sixth studio album entitled I Will Be Me worldwide. Davies undertook a short tour of the US to promote the album Dave Davies performed his first UK show in thirteen years in February 2014.In October 2014, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Kinks, a new album by Davies, with many tracks looking back to the start of the band, titled Rippin’ Up Time was released. Davies appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to promote the album in 2014. This episode was the highest rated Tonight Show episode in 2014.

In 2015 the Dave Davies solo album Rippin Up New York City was released on Red River Entertainment. Dave Davies embarked on a solo tour to promote the album in the USA in October and November. On 18 December he was joined onstage by brother Ray Davies to perform the Kinks’ hit ‘You Really Got Me’ together at Dave Davies’ concert in London at the Islington Assembly Hall. This marked the first time in nearly 20 years that the brothers had appeared and performed together.Other band members included Jonathan Lea on second guitar, Tom Currier on bass, Dennis Diken of the Smithereens on drums and Debi Doss and Rebecca Wilson on backing vocals.

In 1990,  Graham Nash inducted The Kinks into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and performed a rockin’ version of “All Day and All of the Night.”

At age 15, Davies was caught having sex with his girlfriend at his high school, and was subsequently expelled from school. He later discovered that she was pregnant, and their families forced them apart. He didn’t meet his daughter until 1993, and the experience deeply affected him and his work. He wrote a number of songs about the struggle, including “Funny Face,” “Susannah’s Still Alive” and “Mindless Child of Motherhood.”In addition to the daughter he fathered at 15, Davies married in 1967 and had four sons. He and his wife divorced in 1990. He also has three children from another relationship.

Davies is bisexual, a fact that he discusses at-length in his 1996 autobiography, Kink.

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Who Left the Cake Out in the Rain, Anyway?

Today is the 70’th birthday of one of the greatest singer/songwriter to come out of that era — Jimmy Webb. Accordingly, I thought it might be appropriate to write about one of his most successful songs.

Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” is one of the most powerfully evocative and epically heart-breaking “love lost” songs ever written. It is preposterous, although it is not kitsch. It is sublime. It’s a masterpiece for the ages.

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But it drives some people nuts.

“MacArthur Park” was once ridiculed by “humorist” Dave Barry as the “worst song in modern history” and as having the “worst lyrics.” (Then again if Dave Barry is yer barometer o’ musical taste…) Others, more generously, have called the lyrics to “MacArthur Park” among the most misunderstood in pop music history, but until fairly recently, the great songwriter himself was always somewhat coy about the meaning. And why shouldn’t he have been? What might seem to be obtuse imagery was anything but—and he obviously knew this—but why ruin what people projected onto his words when they heard the song by explaining exactly what it meant to him? Many people probably have their own deeply held versions of what that song is “really” about. To them. It’s one of the key elements that makes “MacArthur Park” so personal for so many people.

After years of listening to and enduring what I’m sure must have been annoying efforts to either perform an exegesis on “MacArthur Park,” or simply lampoon it, Jimmy Webb spilled the beans about one of his greatest songs to the Guardian in 2013:

The lyrics to “MacArthur Park” infuriate some people. “Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it/ Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again”. They think it’s a psychedelic trip. But everything in the song is real. There is a MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, near where an old girlfriend worked selling life insurance.  We’d meet there for lunch, and there would be old men playing checkers by the trees, ke in the lyrics.”

I’ve been asked a million times: “What is the cake left out in the rain?” it’s something I saw…But as a metaphor for closing a chapter of your life, it seemed too good to be true. When she broke up with me I poured the hurt into the song.

In an interview with Newsday the following year, Webb further explained:

Everything in the song was visible. There is nothing that has been fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. Back then,  I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.

.It was not the only deeply longing love song that he’d write for this same woman.Immortalized as the girl with “the yellow cotton dress foaming like a wave on the ground around your knees,” Suzy Horton was also the muse for “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Where’s the Playground, Susie” and “Didn’t We.” They’d met when they both attended the same high school in Colton, CA and Webb had carried a torch for her for years. She was apparently somewhat less than sold on him, however. When Webb found out that Horton was getting married, he composed “The Worst That Could Happen” (a hit for the Brooklyn Bridge) with the heart-ripping refrain:

“Girl, I heard you’re getting married, heard you’re getting married….maybe it’s the best thing for you, but it’s the worst that could happen –to me.”

“MacArthur Park” and its epic musical detailing of the end of their relationship was offered to chart-topping vocal group the Association as a cantata—their producer Bones Howe had asked him to write something elaborate and orchestral for the band, and this was what Webb had come up with—but the composition was rejected for being too long.

Around this same time, Webb got chummy with Irish actor Richard Harris, who he got drunk with backstage at a charity event in Los Angeles. Harris sent the composer a telegram asking him to come to London to record an album, and Webb joined him. “MacArthur Park” was the final song in the pile and when he played it for Harris, the actor told him he’d give him his car—a Rolls-Royce Phantom Five—if the song became a hit (it was and he never did).Here’s Richard Harris, who performed the original and Grammy Award-winning version of the song doing it live, baby, on ITV in 1972.

An extraordinary live version of “MacArthur Park” performed by Jimmy Webb. Accompanying himself on piano, and sans the baroque orchestration, the anguished gut-wrenching emotions of the song are so exposed and visceral here. Jimmy Webb isn’t perhaps the best singer, but holy shit, if this performance doesn’t move you, then, wow, I just cannot fucking help you. You’re dead inside.

 

Waylon Jennings had a hit with a country version of “MacArthur Park” in 1969.

Glen Campbell performing “MacArthur Park” (with Jimmy Webb on piano) on the BBC in 1975.

Donna Summer’s million-selling discofied take on “MacArthur Park” is considered by many to be the “definitive” version. Here she is singing it live in 1978.

retha Franklin doing a not-so-great rendition of “MacArthur Park” on a Bob Hope special in 1975. Talk about gilding the lily… I expected this to be good. It was something else. After the song is over, it’s clear that they’re both reading cue cards during the banter!

Aretha Franklin doing a not-so-great rendition of “MacArthur Park” on a Bob Hope special in 1975. Talk about gilding the lily… I expected this to be good. It was something else. After the song is over, it’s clear that they’re both reading cue cards during the banter!

Paul Shaffer, Jimmy Webb, Will Lee and the CBS Orchestra ‘s soaring performance of “MacArthur Park” on Late Night with David Letterman, something requested by the host especially for his son.

“Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Jurassic Park”

Robert Goulet passionately declaims an emotional rendition of “MacArthur Park” on his 1970 TV special. And perhaps I should quit while I am still ahead here…

Which Multi-Genre Band Leader/Composer/Musician Began his Career Accompanying a Bouzouki Player in a Greek Restaurant?

Joe Jackson is arguably one of the most talented musician in popular music over the past 40 years. He has had success in many different genres whose abilities and interests have transcended any one label.  His initial international success began as part of the new-wave movement of the late 70’a & early 80’s and his popularity and creativity continues to drive the scene.

Joe Jackson was born on August 11, 1954 in Burton-on-Trent, England, but grew up in the South Coast naval port city of Portsmouth.  A skinny, asthmatic kid, he loved books and originally wanted to be a writer.  At age 11, though, he joined a school violin class in order to escape the humiliation of Sports periods in which it was very often him, rather than the ball, which got kicked. Much to his own surprise, he found himself fascinated by music and eagerly studying music theory and history.

A couple of years later, Joe had switched to the piano, mainly because of his new ambition: to be a composer.  His first efforts were pieces for piano and small groups of instruments.  Within a few more years, though, he was writing songs, and leaning more towards the pop world.

At age 16 Joe played his first paying gig, as pianist in a pub next door to a glue factory just outside of Portsmouth.  This was followed by other pub gigs (in which he was often trying to entertain crowds of drunken, bottle-throwing sailors) and accompanying a bouzouki player in a Greek restaurant.

At age 18 Joe won a scholarship to study Composition, Piano, and Percussion at London’s Royal Academy of Music.  During the three years he spent there, he broadened his horizons further by working with a Fringe theatre group, studying Jazz with John Dankworth at the Academy and in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and playing in pop cover bands with names like Edward Bear and The Misty Set.  By the time he left the Academy, he was the co-leader and songwriter of Arms and Legs, a proto-punk outfit which released two singles on the MAM label before burning out somewhere around 1976.

Joe then took a detour through the Cabaret world, as pianist and musical director first for the Portsmouth Playboy Club and then for singing duo Koffee N’ Kreme.  The main purpose of this was to save money to make demos of his own songs.

joe jackson Look Sharp

 

By 1978 Joe was living in London and hawking an album-length demo, with his own band (Graham Maby, Bass; Dave Houghton, Drums; Gary Sanford, Guitar) standing by.  That demo  –  already called Look Sharp  – eventually found its way to American producer David Kershenbaum, who was in London in the capacity of talent scout for A&M Records.  Joe was immediately signed and Look Sharp more professionally re-recorded in August ’78.  The Joe Jackson Band finally started to play regular gigs and the album was released in January 1979.

Joe Jackson’s story up to this point is much more fully, fascinatingly, and hilariously recounted in his book A CURE FOR GRAVITY.  From here on, though, it becomes more a matter of public record. Look Sharp (containing the hit Is She Really Going Out With Him) was followed within a year by the very similar I’m The Man (containing the hit It’s Different For Girls) and in 1980 by the darker, more reggae-influenced Beat Crazy. At the end of 1980, drummer Houghton decided to quit, and Joe decided to dissolve the band and try something new.

joe jackson jump    Joe Jackson I'm the Man  Joe Jackson Night & Day

In 1981 Jackson recorded Jumpin’ Jive, a ‘musical vacation’ paying tribute to Swing and Jump Blues artists such as Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway.  Returning to songwriting, Joe spent a large chunk of 1982 in New York. The result was Night and Day, a more sophisticated and melodic record built around keyboards and Latin percussion, rather than guitars. With a new guitar-less band, Jackson hit the road for a whole year, and the album became his biggest success, spawning the hit singles Steppin’Out, Breaking Us In Two and Real Men and going platinum in the US. During the tour Joe also somehow found time to write his first film score, for James Bridges’ Mike’s Murder.  (He would go on to write several more, including most notably for Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker in 1988).

Now based in NYC, Jackson’s next album Body and Soul (1984) was in a similar vein to Night and Day but featured a horn section (which, along with the Blue Note-inspired cover art, led many people to wrongly assume he’d made a jazz record). For Big World (1986) Jackson stripped everything down to a 4-piece again, and recorded live, direct to 2-track master. In 1989 he went in the opposite direction with the majestic, semi-autobiographical Blaze of Glory, and toured with an 11-piece band.  Laughter and Lust (1991) was more like a mainstream (though still idiosyncratic) rock record, but yet another lengthy world tour left Jackson exhausted and at a creative dead end. As he sees it, his workaholic phase  –  which also included several film scores, a live album (Live 1980-86), an instrumental album (Will Power, 1987), guest appearances with Suzanne Vega, Ruben Blades and Joan Armatrading, and endless touring  –  was over.

Joe’s work during the rest of the 1990s was his most challenging and eclectic: the gentle, soul-searching Night Music (1994), the ambitious and original song-cycle based on the Seven Deadly Sins, Heaven and Hell (1997), and the album Joe considers his most underrated, Night and Day II (2000). The turn of the century saw a burst of creativity: Jackson won his first Grammy (Best Pop Instrumental Album for the non-traditional, non-orchestral Symphony No.1) and published his book A Cure For Gravity. Described by Joe as not an autobiography but ‘a book about music thinly disguised as a memoir’, it was well-reviewed and has been translated into German and Dutch.

In 2003 Jackson astonished everyone, including himself, by re-forming the original Joe Jackson Band for a stunning new album, Volume 4, and a lengthy tour. The reunion was always intended as a one-off, but it also produced a live album, Afterlife, in 2004.

By this time Jackson was living mostly back in London. He made quite a few solo appearances, including on an unusual triple-bill tour with Todd Rundgren and the string quartet Ethel. He sang and played piano on Rickie Lee Jones’ It’s Like That and William Shatner’s Has Been(produced, arranged and co-written by Ben Folds). He made his first film appearance, as a pub pianist, in The Greatest Game Ever Played, which also features some of his music. He was also awarded a Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Music and an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Portsmouth.

Around this time Joe started working with writer Raymond Hardie and director Judy Dolan on Stoker, a musical theatre project about Bram Stoker, the creator of Dracula. Though Stoker has been workshopped, performed a couple of times for small invited audiences, and attracted a lot of interest from theatre companies around the world, it has yet to find the backing for a fully staged production.

In 2006 Joe turned his attention back to pure songwriting and did a short Trio tour with Graham Maby and Dave Houghton. Having failed to happily re-establish himself in London, he moved to Berlin, where his next album Rain was recorded in 2007. Consisting of ten powerful, timeless new songs, Rain creates a surprisingly epic sound with just voices, piano, bass and drums. The trio toured for the next three years, and played more shows than any other J J lineup, including Joe’s first visits to Mexico, Israel, Croatia, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Turkey. A live album, Live Music, was released in 2011.

Joe Jackson’s most recent album Fast Forward was released in 2015 to critical acclaim. Composed, produced and arranged by Jackson, Fast Forward features four sets of four songs each recorded in four different cities – New York, New Orleans, Berlin and Amsterdam – each with a different set of guest musicians. The New York sessions feature Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Regina Carter, and Graham Maby; the Amsterdam sessions feature the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Stefan Kurger and Stefan Schmid from Zuco 103, as well as Mitchel Sink from the cast of Matilda; the Berlin sessions feature Greg Cohen and Earl Harvin; and the New Orleans sessions feature a horn section led by Donald Harrison in addition to three members of the funk band Galactic: Stanton Moore, Robert Mercurio, and Jeff Raines.

Jackson is currently living in Berlin but returns frequently to both New York and Portsmouth. Later this year, he will be touring Fast Forward extensively around North America.

Jackson was married to his wife, Ruth, for two years, but the marriage ended in divorce and was later called a “disaster” by Jackson.

Jackson has actively campaigned against smoking bans in both the United States and the United Kingdom, publishing a 2005 pamphlet (The Smoking Issue) and a 2007 essay (Smoke, Lies and the Nanny State), and recording a satirical song (“In 20-0-3”) on the subject.