On this day in 1975, pioneering singer/actress/dancer/civil rights activist/spy Josephine Baker passed away at the age of 68. She died just a few days after a retrospective performance at the Bobino in Paris celebrating her 50 years in show biz. Jackie O, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier funded the show and opening night featured a celebrity-studded audience that included everyone from Mick Jagger to Sophia Loren. Baker's body was discovered four days later, reportedly surrounded by newspapers featuring glowing reviews of her performance.
At her funeral, she became the first American woman to garner full French military honors, one of many "firsts" involving Baker. She was the first black woman to star in a major film, the first to demand (and get) integrated audiences at her concerts and the first to become a global superstar. She fought for civil rights in America (offered a chance to lead it after MLK's assassination, she declined for fear of also being killed) and, before that, helped France (her adopted homeland) in World War II, for which she received numerous honors. Baker was also reportedly a bi-sexual who had serious relationships with both men and women in her lifetime, adding some spicy mystique to her life story.
She got her start as a vaudeville dancer at 15 and eventually became one of the highest paid chorus girls on the planet. In the mid ’20s she did burlesque shows in Paris and around Europe, well-known for her trademark banana-skirt and, later, her pet cheetah Chiquita, who would join her on stage (and, reportedly, terrorize the orchestra). Baker was considered a "muse" for artists from Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, who once said she was "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw."
Baker's life has been the source of several films, musicals, plays and books. On screen and stage, she's been portrayed by the likes of Lynn Whitfield, Diana Ross, Keri Hilson and Beyonce, who sported Baker's banana costume during a 2006 performance (see below) and, in her "Naughty Girl" video, she again paid tribute by dancing in a giant champagne glass.
Baker released several albums in the early ’50s for Columbia and Mercury. Here she is performing her biggest hit (in France), "J'ai Deux Amours."
Click on for Born This Day featuring Hound Dog Taylor, Tiny Tim, Nick Hexum and Vince Gill.
Thirty five years ago today, the original Apple Computer — now called Apple I — was introduced. This week it was revealed that Apple's market value hit $600 billion. Only one other company — Microsoft — has ever reached that value level (it's now back down to a paltry $255 billion, according to the Associated Press).
Not even its creator could have known that the little box designed and hand-built by Steve Wozniak (with entrepreneurial spiritual guidance by Steve Jobs) would lead to multiple revolutions, including in the worlds of technology, telecommunications, media, music and likely hundreds of other fields.
Who knows where those fields would be today were it not for Apple. One thing that certainly would not exist today is the following song tribute to Jobs by New York City-based progressive House DJ/producer AzR featuring only sounds and tones from an Apple computer (aside from some Jobs quotes). Every time I hear that "chirp," I think my iPod connector cable is going haywire.
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing an April 11 birthday include early Jazz musician Nick LaRocca (1889); Pop and Jazz music's first African-American personal manager (and also a noted Jazz bassist) John Levy (1912); composer of Rock classic "Louie Louie," Richard Berry (1935); original member of The Specials (and singer in Special Beat with The English Beat's Ranking Roger) Neville Staple (1955); late singer/guitarist for one hit wonders Big Country ("In a Big Country") Stuart Adamson (1958); co-founder of Gin Blossoms (who later committed suicide after leaving the band) Doug Hopkins (1961); British Soul/Pop vocalist Joss Stone (1987); and singular actor/musician Vincent Gallo (1962).
Gallo is best known as an indie film actor with a public persona so over the top, many find him obnoxious. Though he's never had a mainstream breakthrough (in part thanks to his refusal to go the Nic Cage route and make shitty, big-budget craptaculars just for the paycheck), he remains one of America's great underrated actors. And his stellar feature Buffalo ’66 (in which he starred and directed and wrote) is one of the best twisted RomComs of all time, second perhaps only to Billy Wilder's The Apartment. Hopefully he'll make another masterpiece at some point. But his experimental streak seems pretty domineering.
Gallo has been as adventurous in his musical work as he has in celluloid. When Gallo moved to NYC in the ’70s, he played in a band with art legend Jean Michel Basquiat and later performed in other groups and as a solo artist. He continued to write music for his films (notably Brown Bunny and Buffalo) and has put out a few releases on U.K. electronic/experimental label, Warp Records.
Gallo has directed music videos (including John Frusciante's "Going Inside") and appeared in several clips as well, the most famous being Jay-Z's "99 Problems."
In 2005, Gallo curated a weekend of show at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the U.K., booking Yoko Ono, Frusciante (Gallo, coincidentally, toured in 2001 with a band that included Frusciante's Chili Peppers replacement, Josh Klinghoffer) and Yoko Ono (Gallo and Ono's son Sean Lennon also made an album around that time that has yet to be released).
Here's the first song on his 2001 solo album When, "I Wrote This Song For the Girl Paris Hilton" (for no clear reason).
On this day in 1956, innovative guitar builder Leo Fender was awarded the patent for a "Tremolo Device for Stringed Instruments," commonly known as the "whammy bar." The device was misnamed — it's more accurately a vibrato bar (tremolo is a "wavering effect in a musical tone, produced by rapid reiteration of a note, by rapid repeated variation in the pitch of a note," according to the dictionary) — but that didn't stop musicians from using it in a variety of ways to create new sounds and techniques. The bar was introduced with Fender's Stratocaster, which was invented a couple of years earlier.
The Greater Cincinnati area has given the world two "twang bar kings" (or maybe "twang bar Picassos" is more appropriate) —pals and bandmates in The Bears, Adrian Belew and Rob Fetters.
On this date in 1962, a pre-performance speech by legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, seen by some as an attack on guest pianist — the almost equally as legendary Glenn Gould — caused quite a stir in the Classical music world. The concert was to feature Gould performing Brahms' "First Piano Concerto," but apparently the pianist and music director (Bernstein) disagreed on how it was to be performed. The New York Philharmonic concert came towards the end of the orchestra's final season at Carnegie Hall.
The disagreement was largely over tempo — Gould felt the composition should be played very slowly. Before the intermission, the orchestra played selections by Carl Nielsen. Fearful that Gould would not even show up (he was notorious for last-minute cancellations), Bernstein had the Philharmonic prepared to play Brahms' First Symphony just in case. Gould showed, but to prepare the audience for the unorthodox performance, Bernstein took to the podium and delivered the controversial introduction/disclaimer/diss. (Bernstein delivered the same speech at a preview performance the night before.)
Don't be frightened. Mr. Gould is here. He will appear in a moment. I'm not, um, as you know, in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two. You are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I've ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter, in its remarkably broad tempi and its frequent departures from Brahms' dynamic indications. I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould's conception and this raises the interesting question: "What am I doing conducting it?" I'm conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it, too.
But the age old question still remains: "In a concerto, who is the boss; the soloist or the conductor?" The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats to achieve a unified performance. I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist's wholly new and incompatible concept and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould. But, but this time the discrepancies between our views are so great that I feel I must make this small disclaimer. Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct? Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work; Because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist, who is a thinking performer, and finally because there is in music what Dimitri Mitropoulos used to call "the sportive element", that factor of curiosity, adventure, experiment, and I can assure you that it has been an adventure this week collaborating with Mr. Gould on this Brahms concerto and it's in this spirit of adventure that we now present it to you
Many critics wrote about the intro and viewed it as the conductor's way of saying, "If this sucks, it's his fault." And many took Gould to task for his interpretation of the music (though some musicologists later said Gould's version was a correct reading of the material). Gould, for his part, said he enjoyed the performance and liked that it caused some in the audience to boo. Columbia had planned to release a recording of the performance but backed off given the controversy. Bootlegs spread like wildfire and Sony Classical, years later (in 1998), released the recording with Bernstein's remarks in tact. In the liner notes, Gould is quoted as saying, "Soloists and conductors disagree all the time. Why should this be hidden from the public, especially if both parties still give their all?" Bernstein also didn't seem too bothered by the controversy and he never stopped praising Gould's unique talent.
Here's a clip of Bernstein and Gould getting along just fine in 1960, performing Bach's "Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor."
Click on for Born This Day featuring Warren Haynes, Gerry Mulligan, Merle Haggard and Cobra Starship's Alex Suarez.
On this day 18 years ago, Kurt Cobain decided he was done with life and ended it with a single shotgun blast to the head. While it's fun to play the "What if?" game with brilliant artists who died too soon — like, "Would John Lennon have followed Yoko's lead to become a Dance music superstar?" or "Would James Dean be doing stereotypical 'cool old guy' roles today if he was still around?" — it is, of course, a pointless exercise.
But crystal-ball wonderings of a person who actually knew the artist? That's at least a little more interesting. Spin has a piece this morning about the vague musings of Cobain's widow, musician/actress Courtney Love, in an interview a year ago with Mark Yarm, author of Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. Love told Yarm, "We'd probably live on the Upper West fuckin' Side now and have three fuckin' kids. We might even have a divorce, like both be on our third marriage. I don't fuckin' know. He might be a playwright, (or have) his latest show in MoMA." (Read more here and check out the links featuring other Cobain remembrances.)
I like to think the couple would have starred in a really bad Everybody Loves Raymond-type sitcom on CBS. But mostly I wish Cobain would have stuck it out. As they say a lot nowadays, "It gets better."
I was lucky enough to see Nirvana a couple of times before Kurt made that impossible — once at Shorty's, the tiny subterranean club on Short Vine in Corryville, with about 50 people in attendance and once at Dayton's Hara Arena (see: poster above) with … quite a bit more people in attendance. Both shows were memorable. I think I got kicked out of Shorty's because some guy wanted to stab me that night (long story). (Nirvana played a few times in our area in those get-in-the-van-and-go, pre-stardom days, including a show at Clifton Heights bar Murphy's Pub. They were scheduled to play with the great AmRep band The Cows at the Top Hat in Newport but their van allegedly broke down on their way. I remember it well ’cause this local band opened up.)
In Dayton (memorable in hindsight because Cobain would be dead within a year), Kurt thought former drummer Chad Channing (who lived in Ohio then) was in the audience. The band called for Channing to come up and play "School" with them, but he never showed. Turns out, he wasn't there.
The band did play "School" later in the set and dedicated it to Channing. Check out the audio below.
Click on for Born This Day featuring Peter Case, Pharrell and Joe Meek.
On this day in 1964, The Beatles had the top five singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It's been said that it's an unrivaled feat that will likely never be duplicated but those sorts of records always seem to eventually be broken (especially in the the ever-evolving music biz). The kids on Glee will probably occupy the entire Top 20 this year sometime or Vanilla Ice will die and spark a massive revival, smashing any and all previous chart records.
Until then, here are those Beatles singles in their chart positions the week of April 4, 1964:
1) "Can't Buy Me Love"
2) "Twist and Shout"
3) "She Loves You"
4) "I Want to Hold Your Hand"
5) "Please Please Me"
The group had a remarkable 12 songs on the chart that week. The other songs in the Top 100 were "I Saw Her Standing There" (No. 31), "From Me To You" (No. 41), "Do You Want to Know a Secret" (No. 46), "All My Loving" (No. 58), "You Can't Do That" (No. 65), "Roll Over Beethoven" (No. 68) and "Thank You Girl" (No. 79).
The chart even contained two Beatles-inspired novelty ditties — "A Letter to The Beatles" by The Four Preps (No. 85) and The Carefrees' "We Love You Beatles" (No. 42).
Curren$y and Jill Scott.
On this day in 1989, Pepsi dropped Madonna as a spokesperson after complaints about her "blasphemous" video for the single (also used in the Pepsi commercial campaign) "Like A Prayer." The Vatican condemned the video for its imagery of burning crosses and Madonna kissing a black man, while religious groups called for a boycott of all Pepsi-affiliated products. The soft drink manufacturer caved and cut and run from the Pop princess. But Pepsi gave Madonna a nice parting gift — the company was so eager to get away from the controversy that they let her keep her $5 million (yes, million) advance.
Thirty years earlier, another music-related controversy erupted in the U.K. when the BBC decided that The Coasters' song "Charlie Brown" was not fit for airplay. Was it that the Peanuts comic strip was too controversial? Peppermint Patty's sexuality has always been a topic of debate. Were they afraid the youth of England would all mimic Charlie Brown's sparse curly-Q hairdo, essentially killing off the hair-care product industry? Was Pigpen's personal hygiene deficiency deemed a bad influence?
Nope — the BBC was worried about the song because it contained the word "spitball" and they were fearful kids all over would be inspired to destroy society with saliva-drenched missiles. Unlike Pepsi, the Beeb reversed its decision a couple of weeks later, apparently realizing how ridiculous the "ban" was.
Here are clips relating to both controversies. Watch at your own risk!
On this day in 2003, the singer of one of the best known anti-war protest songs, "War," died from a heart attack at his home in England. Born in Nashville and raised in Cleveland, Edwin Starr (born Charles Hatcher) moved to Detroit in the ’60s and eventually started recording for Motown. In 1968, he had his first big hit, "Twenty-Five Miles," but two years later he'd release a song originally recorded by The Temptations (and written by genius songwriting team Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong) that would become his signature.
Motown wasn't keen on letting The Temptations release "War" — a very obvious protest number ("War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothin' ") aimed at the Vietnam War — out of fear that it would alienate the group's fans, so Starr recorded it, giving it a more intense delivery, and it went to No. 1 upon its release in the summer of 1970, where it stayed for three weeks.
Starr embraced his role as outspoken anti-war critic and released the single "Stop the War Now" in 1971 (it was yet another song also recorded by The Temptations, who clearly had dibs on material).
Starr ultimately left Motown, tiring of the more formulaic material they were producing, and moved to the U.K. He recorded several songs with the British group, Utah Saints, including a new version of "War" in 2003, which became his final recorded output. Bruce Springsteen repopularized the song when he performed it towards the end of his Born in the U.S.A. tour. The Boss' version was released as a live single in 1986 and made it to No. 8 on the Billboard singles chart. (Oh, and also in the ’80s, Frankie Goes to Hollywood covered it, though I think just so Holly Johnson could reprise his "Hunnhhhh!" shout from "Relax.")
The Temptations did release a slightly less direct song with societal commentary in 1970 that made it to No. 3, the superb "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)."
Click on for Born This Day featuring Serge Gainsbourg, Marvin Gaye, Dr. Demento and Zeebra.
On this day in 2005, two young musicians died well before their time.
After reportedly battling a bipolar disorder and drug addiction, SoCal Punk drummer Derrick Plourde — who had played with bands like The Ataris, Lagwagon (the band that gave him his start), The Mad Caddies and others — killed himself with a gun. He was 33.
Lagwagon's seventh studio album, Resolve, released later in 2005, was inspired by and dedicated to Plourde. The album became Lagwagon's first to break the Billboard 200, notching a peak position of 172. Here's the single (used on a Tony Hawk video game soundtrack … as Plourde would have wanted?), "Heartbreaking Music."
Also today in 2005, Hideaki Sekiguchi of the Japanese Garage Punk trio Guitar Wolf (known simply as Billy or Bass Wolf) had a fatal heart attack in Tokyo, just after completing a successful tour of America. Sekiguchi was 38 and left behind a wife and two kids. Guitar Wolf — which has put out albums on indie labels like Matador and Narnack in the States — carried on with a new bassist and has released three albums since Sekiguchi's death.
Here's Guitar Wolf's "UFO Romantics" from the band's album of the same name (Sekiguchi's last with the group):
Born This Day: Musical movers and shakers sharing a March 30 birthday include legendary Blues singer/harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson (1914); drummer/poet/songwriter with The Moody Blues, Graeme Edge (1941); drummer for The Surfaris and Love, Ken Forssi (1943); revered Rock/Blues guitarist Eric Clapton (1945); singer/songwriter ("Fast Car") Tracy Chapman (1964); schmaltzy Canadian chanteuse Celine Dion (1968); singer/songwriter Norah Jones (1979) and onetime Rap star MC Hammer (1962).
While Hammer (born Stanley Burrell) did much to popularize Hip Hop, becoming one of its first superstars, he remains one of Pop music's greatest punching bags. Some might say it was his money issues; many had a hard time feeling sympathy as they saw or read about some of the gaudy "luxury items" Hammer had to give up. But, mostly, Hammer was a victim of his music (and videos) just not standing the test of time even slightly.
Spin magazine recently ran its list of The 30 Biggest Punching Bags in History and somehow, despite his running partner Vanilla Ice coming in at No. 6, Hammer was nowhere to be found (nor was, miraculously, fellow birthday celebrator Celine Dion). Click here to read Spin's rundown, here to read it without having to click to the next page 400 times or just look below for the straight-up list. I say take Duran Duran or Lawrence Welk (?!) off and put Hammer in. Justice for Hammer!
1 Milli Vanilli
2 Limp Bizkit
3 Kenny G
5 Insane Clown Posse
6 Vanilla Ice
7 Emerson, Lake & Palmer
8 Matchbox 20
9 Pat Boone
10 Yoko Ono
12 Michael Bolton
14 Billy Ray Cyrus
15 Puff Daddy
17 Barry Manilow
18 KC and the Sunshine Band
19 Lawrence Welk
20 The Osmonds
21 Duran Duran
22 Christopher Cross
23 Smash Mouth
24 Black Eyed Peas
25 Lana Del Rey
27 John Mayer
28 New Kids on the Block
29 Phil Collins
30 The Monkees
And here's the "full version" of one of Hammer's greatest hits (he had to drag down James Brown with him?). Happy 50th, Stanley! No gasface for you this year, you loveable ol' pants wrangler.