On this day in 2003, proto-Rock & Roll singer/songwriter Hank Ballard died after a battle with throat cancer. One of the under-heralded heroes of the development of Rock & Roll, Ballard's career is inexorably tied to Cincinnati, where he recorded for locally-based King Records (as well as the related Federal imprint). Ballard was a member of early ’50s Doo-wop grope The Royals, which had an R&B hit with the Federal single "Get It" in 1953 (despite it's alleged "sexually-suggestive" lyrical content).
The group became The Midnighters and landed a No. 1 R&B hit with Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie," another risque tune that was banned by the FCC from radio play. In 1959, the group became "Hank Ballard and the Midnighters" and moved to the King label proper. A 1959 B-side written by Ballard was covered by Chubby Checker and became a No. 1 smash on the Pop charts in 1960 and again in 1962. The song and accompanying dance (said to have also been developed by Ballard) became an international craze. The book Behind The Hits: Inside Stories of Classic Pop and Rock and Roll called the song's success "a major turning point for adult acceptance of rock and roll music."
Despite having one of their songs co-opted and turned into a cultural phenomenon, the early ’60s did bring Ballard and the Midnighters several Pop chart hits, including "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go" and the Grammy-nominated "Finger Poppin' Time." Ballard began a solo career in the late ’60s (despite support from James Brown, it never fully took off) and performed with a version of The Midnighters off and on until the year before he died. In 1990, Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (without his Midnighters).
The footage is a little rough, but here's a cool clip of Ballard from 1989 performing "Work With Me, Annie" on one of my favorite live-music TV shows ever, David Sanborn's Night Music.
Click on for Born This Day, featuring Lou Reed, Chris Martin and … Dr. Seuss?
Were it not for the Grim Reaper, two celebrated musical couples would be celebrating wedding anniversaries today. Country music superstars Johnny Cash and June Carter (soon-to-be Carter Cash) tied the knot on this date in 1968 in a Franklin, Ky., church. The bride wore light blue; the groom wore (duh!) black. Their relationship was the basis for the celebrated biopic Walk the Line, which showed the couple's rocky patches in all their glory, as well as their dedication to each other. The couple had just one child together, John Carter Cash (born in 1970). The couple managed to put their problems behind them and remained married until June's death in May of 2003. Cash passed away five months later.
June co-wrote (with Merle Kilgore) one of Johnny's biggest songs, 1963's "Ring of Fire," which is said to have been inspired by her conflicted feelings for Johnny.
Since this date only occurs every four years, there are fewer birthdays and notable happenings in the history books. But things have indeed occurred on Feb. 29 throughout time — even a few related to music. Here's a quick roundup:
• Buddy Holly's famous glasses were found at the Mason City Sheriff's office in Iowa, buried in old files. They also found Big Bopper's watch. Both items were believed to have been worn by the pair when they died together in a plane crash in 1959. Holly's glasses are on display at the Buddy Holly Center in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.
• The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers wins Album of the Year at the 1968 Grammys.
• In 1996, musician/songwriter Wes Farrell, who wrote and co-wrote songs performed by The Beatles and The Animals, many hits by The Partridge Family and Ohio State anthem "Hang on Sloopy," died on this day in 1996 from cancer.
• Don't feel so bad, Sammy Hagar. Eric Clapton can't drive 55, either! The guitar god's license was suspended on this day in 2000 after he was busted speeding.
• Guitarist for Punk pioneers Social Distortion, Dennis Danell, died at the age of 36 on this day in 2000, reportedly from a brain aneurysm (though Mike Ness claims it was a heart problem).
And here's your song for today: a slanted Jazz freakout called "Leap Year Day" by Chicago Lounge music revivalists (they called it "Garage Jazz") The Coctails, taken from the group's Popcorn retrospective box set.
Born This Day: A few psychopaths were born today — like Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez, Aileen Wuornos (played by Charlize Theron in the film Monster) and Tony Robbins (OK, maybe the motivational-speaking superstar's just a little weird) — but there have been a few musical types born on Leap Day as well.
Big Band Jazz superstar Jimmy Dorsey was born Leap Day, 1904.
Rap star Ja Rule — who released a new album yesterday — turns 36 today and will celebrate in a New York state prison, where he's serving time for gun possession charges (TMZ reports he will party in jail with special meals throughout the day — corn flakes, Jamaican "patties" and "turkey stew").
Chris Conley of Emo favorites Saves the Day was born Leap Day 1980.
Mark Foster, frontman for breakout stars Foster the People (if you haven't heard their hit "Pumped Up Kicks," please tell us where your bunker is located), was born today in 1984.
And poet, activist, spoken word star and inventive recording artist Saul Williams was a Leap Newborn on this day in 1972. In honor of Saul's 40th b-day, here's a video for a track off of his amazing Trent Renzor-produced album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!
On this day in 1984, Michael Jackson swept the 26th annual Grammy Awards, winning eight trophies, for everything from Record and Album of the Year ("Beat It" and Thriller) to Best Recording for Children (timeless children's classic, the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial soundtrack). No doubt because of Jackson's presence, the telecast remains the most watched in history; Whitney Houston's death this year almost helped the Grammys break that record, but it still came up about four million viewers short of the 43.8 million who watched in 1984.
But there were other winners that night. Rounding out the "Big 4" categories: Sting won "Song of the Year" for writing The Police's "Every Breath You Take" and the coveted Best New Artist award went to Culture Club (which had scored three Top 10 singles off of its debut album in the U.S., the first band since The Beatles to do so).
Elsewhere, former Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Mike Reid won Best Country Song for writing "Stranger in My House" for Ronnie Milsap and the crappy movie Flashdance was all the rage, winning Irene Cara "Best Vocal Performance, Female" for "Flashdance (What A Feeling)" and Giorgio Moroder "Best Instrumental Composition" for "Love Theme from Flashdance", while the soundtrack won the awkwardly titled "Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Special."
Best R&B Instrumental Performance went to Jazz legend Herbie Hancock's "Rockit," the first popular single to feature DJ scratching (by pioneering turntablist, GrandMixer D. St.) and the first time "Hip Hop" was accepted by the Grammy committee. It would be five years before the awards added a "Rap" category, though that year (1989), most nominees (including winners DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince) boycotted the ceremony because it was one of the awards not given out during the telecast.
Here's Hancock, his band and D. St. doing "Rockit" live:
Click the jump for Born This Day featuring Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones.
On this day in 1968, one of Rock & Roll's Shakespearean tragedies came to an end as singer Frankie Lymon, a Pop superstar in the mid-’50s with Rock & Roll/R&B vocal group The Teenagers, died from a heroin overdose at the age of 25.
Actually, if you've ever seen the 1998 film Why Do Fools Fall in Love
(named for Lymon and the Teenagers' biggest hit), you know that the
singer's death was a trick ending. The story of Lymon's sad legacy
(blockbuster hit leads to lead singer ego explosion; quits group; can't
find solo success; finds drugs; gets drafted; quits drugs; mounts
comeback; celebrates with drugs; dies) took an unusual turn in the ’80s.
Three different women came forward claiming to be Lymon's widow and
entitled to his estate. Turns out, they were all
telling the truth — Lymon had married all three but never divorced any
of them. Ultimately, the singer's estate was awarded to his third wife;
if that conclusion was reached on a coin-flip, could you really blame
Here's archival footage of Lymon's last TV appearance, a 1965 slot on the program Hollywood A Go-Go where the 22-year-old singer lip-synched to the original version of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love" — recorded when he was 13.
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing a Feb. 27 birthday include Jazz legend Dexter Gordon (1923); ex-WKRP in Cincinnati DJ, Dr. Johnny Fever, aka Howard Hesseman (1940); Journey guitarist and MILF pilfer Neal Schon (1954); guitarist/songwriter with Metal giants Iron Maiden, Adrian Smith (1957); Sex Pistols hanger-on Nancy Spungen (1958); singer with R&B/Hip Hop/Pop trio TLC, Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas (1971); and Classical/Pop vocalist Josh Groban (1981).
Groban is the kind of singer who would be really easy to make fun of if he didn't have such a good sense of humor about himself already. One of those Classical/Opera crossover Pop stars (like Charlotte Church or Il Divo) who approaches Pop and Rock material with the same overly careful enunciation and melodrama, Groban has parodied himself on various comedy programs, including Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and this bit from Jimmy Kimmel Live, where the singer used his talents to make Kanye West's nutty tweets sound even nuttier.
There have been several Grammy Awards held on this date. Here are a few highlights from three random Feb. 24 ceremonies:
1982's 24th Grammy Awards were big for Kim Carnes' one-hit-wonderful "Bette Davis Eyes," which won the Record and Song of the Year trophies. John Lennon won Album of the Year posthumously for Double Fantasy. Fun ones: Orson Welles won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word, Documentary or Drama Recording (?) for the radio version of Curt Siodmak's novel, Donovan's Brain; Sheena Easton was Best New Artist; and former knit-capped member of The Monkees, Michael Nesmith, won Video of the Year for Michael Nesmith in Elephant Parts, a collection of music videos and comedy sketches that helped further set the table for the creation of MTV. Watch Nesmith put his madcap Monkee skills to work all those years later:
Click the jump for "Born This Day" featuring George Harrison's new iPad app.
On this day in 1940, American music icon Woody Guthrie wrote his most famous song and one that has become embedded into the DNA of American life, "This Land is You Land." The Folk music legend and notorious fighter for the social causes of the poor and working class is said to have written the song after hearing (a few too many times) Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," which he felt was too hyperbolic. Just like Roxanne Shante's "The Real Roxanne" was written as a response to U.T.F.O.'s "Roxanne Roxanne" (OK, maybe not JUST like), "This Land" was Guthrie's "answer song." Guthrie recorded the future standard five years later, but it wasn't until the ’60s Folk revival that the song really took flight, as everyone from Bob Dylan to The Kingston Trio covered the tune. Though "God Bless America" may be the song still sung at baseball games, "This Land is You Land" has endured as one of the greatest pieces of American art, a reflection of what many of us believe our country is all about — "We're all in this together and lucky to be on this wonderful little chunk of dirt, so shut up and quit being so selfish, jerk-ass!" Or something along those lines (maybe I read too much into it).
The song is still common at protests and used in political contexts. Bruce Springsteen closed his acoustic concerts in support of Barrack Obama in 2008 with a version ("Yes We Can" chants added), while Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello serenaded the mass of humanity at the Occupy Wall Street protest in NYC with the song (lost verses and all) this past October.
Here is one of the great "contemporary" versions — a rendition by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, who give the song a sweet vintage Soul makeover:
Click the jump for "Born This Day" featuring Aziz Ansari, the Mark Twain of Kanye West jokes.
On this day in 1967, The Beatles continued work on arguably their best song, "A Day in the Life." After a debate over how to end the track following the huge orchestral build-up (sustained choral vocals were considered, but scrapped), the group decided to simultaneously strike a massive E chord on three pianos and sustain the notes for as long as possible. Adding overdubs (and a contribution from producer George Martin on harmonium), the final resonating notes hang in the air for over 40 seconds on the recording. As the held chords faded on the pianos in the studio, the engineer had to crank the recording level, which picked up some incidental sounds (like a creaking chair and, certainly, something about Paul being dead) from the studio.
That E-major chord that closes the song — and the whole Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, considered one of the best ever — is widely considered one of the most famous chords in Rock/Pop history. Which means that The Beatles are responsible for the most popular opening chord in modern music — the mysterious G7sus4-ish that kicks off "A Hard Day's Night" — and the most notable final chord with the "A Day in the Life" finale.
Below is audio of BTO guitarist Randy Bachman explaining the "Hard Day's" chord mystery (frustrated guitarists should feel better about their inability to figure it out), followed by today's biggest Pop superstar performing that famed final note from Sgt. Peppers.
Click the jump for "Born This Day" featuring live footage from one of the final Sublime concerts with Bradley Nowell.