Not What I Heard

The soundtrack of my young life went something like this: my mother played classical pieces on the living room piano, my dad played Sinatra and Johnny Cash on the Hi-Fi, my brother played the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on his transistor radio.

I try to remember that personal context thinking of the day (I was around 10 years old) when my friend Anthony brought a new album to the clubhouse of our neighborhood playground. He said to me, in dead earnest, “I know this isn’t what you listen to at home but you have to hear it.” And with that titillating introduction, he pulled James Brown’s ‘Cold Sweat’ out of the sleeve, itself looking strange and unfamiliar to me, and placed it on the playground’s antique record player.

What happened next isn’t entirely clear to me now, many years later, but when the ungodly-long (it was over 7 minutes) song ended, I knew something buried deep inside me had been released. I thought I knew music before hearing James Brown but this was something I’d never heard before; I’d never ever heard anything remotely like it. My wee 10-year-old brain was well and duly blown, and blown for good. When, sometime later, I finally saw Brown perform in ‘The T.A.M.I. Show,’ a concert film, a true happening of cosmic scale, I sat slack-jawed throughout. Not only was his music completely different than anything I’d heard before, he moved in ways I’d never seen.

My family recently gave me ‘The One,’ a brilliant biography of James Brown by RJ Smith and I inhaled it practically overnight. The New York Times review is here. It made me remember what I felt when I first heard his music and it made me appreciate or, more properly, re-appreciate just how revolutionary a figure he was. And to say I loved the book is in no way to sugar-coat Brown’s street-tough life, personal inadequacies, or thorny personality.

James Brown lived hard and righteously pissed off nearly every single person he ever met. That said and understood, he laid a foundation for all that followed him. If you don’t know James Brown, his music and performance, do yourself a favor and discover him now. If you do know him, get Smith’s book; it will be a revelation.

You’re welcome.

So Long, Dick

For some of my readers, this will come as news. Before the ubiquity of online social media, Google, YouTube, NetFlix, and iTunes, you pretty much had to rely on local radio and, to a much lesser extent, television for introduction to new music. Or maybe, if you were really lucky (as I was – thanks, Melecio), connected and knowledgable friends.

The rest of America relied on Dick Clark and/or Don Cornelius. (You can read my thoughts about the passing of Don Cornelius here.) Clark’s show started as a local affair in Philadelphia; it grew to become Bandstand, then, as it went national, American Bandstand. From the start, a couple of things were obvious: (1) Dick Clark was and was always going to be the adult in the mix – this was no ersatz kid – and (2) he loved music and musicians.

He seemed genuinely happy interviewing the kids who danced on the show and wore the latest fashions (My God, the crushes I had on Bandstand’s cast members.). Clark dug deeply into what they liked about what they’d just heard. American Bandstand, courtesy of the host’s earnestness, must have been gold for the research departments of the nation’s advertising agencies.

Over the years, Dick Clark presented a dizzying array of artists. Maybe not always the best artists, although that can be debated, but the variety was both odd and amazing. Reading the list induces incredulity. Here’s a (very) partial list:

Sam Cooke, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Fats Domino, Till Tuesday, The Jackson Five, The Beastie Boys, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Sonny and Cher, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Don McClean, The Temptations, ELO, Jethro Tull, The Young Rascals, Culture Club, James Brown…

Clark became the butt of jokes and a hollow self-parody of his better self at some point, then, in part due to a severe stroke, was seen only as the wooden television presenter of New Year’s Eve. It was a crappy public end to a long and storied career dedicated to something as great as popular music.

May Dick Clark rest in eternal musical peace.

A Don With Style and Class

Sadly, I have to note the passing of Don Cornelius, father of TV’s Soul Train, the show that introduced many a young person of my generation to some of the greatest music being made that wasn’t always available on the crappy AM radio of the type I regularly listened to.

‘ “Soul Train” was one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history and played a critical role in spreading the music of black America to the world, offering wide exposure to musicians like James BrownAretha Franklin and Michael Jackson in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘

– from the New York Times obituary, 2/1/12

Watching Cornelius’ program formed in many, myself certainly, a deep and lifelong appreciation for new and alternative musical forms, including: soul, funk, jazz and the blues. (In my particular case, credit also goes out to my old friend Melecio Magadluyo.) Soul Train also showed me how to dance, something I’ve still not really mastered.

Cornelius and his show were both international style icons. His voice (Here, in a clip from Soul Train, interviewing James Brown and a very young Al Sharpton.) was often heard being imitated to hilarious effect by cracking-voiced junior high school boys but his connection to his community, his business acumen and his appreciation of the era’s uncertain economic and political conditions were taken very seriously.

Rest in peace, Don Cornelius; I’ll listen to some very hot music today in your honor.