Archive for an appreciation

little richard, 1932-2020

Little Richard, circa 1956.

Nothing illuminates the improbable laws of circumstance within the music industry quite like the Grammy Awards. The year was 1988. The Grammys were being broadcast from Radio City Music Hall with the trophy for Best New Artist being presented by a world class odd couple – Little Richard and Buster Poindexter. The winner, Jody Watley, was about to be announced, but Little Richard had his own idea of who should be champion for the evening. He was going to let everyone out in TV land know it, too.

“And the Best New Artist… is me,” he shouted with full gospel fervor. “I have never received nothing. Y’all never gave me Grammys and I’ve been singing for years. I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.”

The jaws of Grammy officials likely crashed to the floor while the Radio City audience sent the singer a standing ovation. Years would pass before the Grammys gave him the first of four Hall of Fame awards and, in what seemed like a conciliatory move, a Lifetime Achievement honor in 1993. But that’s the Grammys for you. More exactly, that’s Little Richard for you. Reticent, he was not.

Upon today’s announcement of the singer’s death at age 87 from cancer-related causes, memories of that televised circus came flooding back. With it came a reminder of just how potent his artistic presence was. In a wildly prolific two year run (1955 to 1957), Little Richard (born Richard Penniman) churned out a succession of hits that mixed juke joint rhythm ‘n’ blues in their sense of brassy drive, rock ‘n’ roll in their unharnessed immediacy and gospel in their unwavering vocal gusto. “Tutti Frutti,” “Lucille,” “Long Tall Sally.” “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” “Rip It Up,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and more grabbed pop music, popular culture and all of the audience expectations they triggered by their collars and shook them feverishly.

Never one to be coyly poetic, Little Richard turned lyrics of seemingly nonsensical zeal into some of the most quotable rock ‘n’ roll verses ever uttered. Offered as evidence is the concluding line to the chorus of “Tutti Frutti,” which supposedly was a phonetic reading of a drum roll: “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom.”

But it was the personality and attitude behind those songs that will forever be Little Richard’s legacy. He was a black, openly gay artist from Georgia who embraced rock ‘n’ roll with songs full of sexual innuendo with a stage flamboyance that had him performing under layers of heavy facial makeup. The audiences who flocked to his shows, mixtures of white and black patrons, didn’t care. It’s a good bet, though, that the parents of late ‘50s America viewed the stardom of Little Richard as a social threat of incalculable extremes.

By 1957, though, he renounced the music that made him famous and became a traveling preacher. “If God can save an old homosexual like me, he can save anybody,” he famously stated in 1979. Little Richard would regularly return to secular music and, at times, battle some of the substance addictions that often accompany lasting pop stardom. But as that Grammy night proved in 1988, his rock ‘n’ spirit never diminished. The foundations this architect established still stand.

Such was the house that “Wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom” built.

mccoy tyner, 1938-2020

McCoy Tyner.

McCoy Tyner was a prizefighter. No, he wasn’t a boxer. For all I know, he wasn’t even an athlete. But when he sat down at the piano, the gloves came off. He was brutal with the keys, conjuring runs of intense speed and physicality fueled by a seemingly unending supply of performance stamina. But what he created wasn’t a mere display of strength. What drove his monstrous soloing and the layers of modal mischief he engaged in with his bandmates seemed to be spiritual in design and intent. Like former employer and mentor John Coltrane, Tyner played until what he had to say was concluded. And what he had to say required considerable human fire power to express.

I recall well the intermission point of a trio concert Tyner gave at the University of Louisville in 2001. Having hardly spoken to the audience, he went on a rampage at the piano with huge, muscular lines that engaged in a tug of war with the rhythm section. The intensity of his playing never waned with his hands going at the keys like a fighter to a punching bag. The sound that emerged was rich, joyous and exhausting. When intermission arrived, Tyner stood up, drenched in sweat, and immediately walked offstage as if he had not fully disconnected from whatever atomic séance had just occurred.

That’s how powerful his playing was.

For many, Tyner will be defined by his work with Coltrane during the first half of the 1960s, a period that saw the release of such vanguard recordings as “Crescent,” “Impressions,” “Ascension,” “Meditations” and, in 1964, the immortal “A Love Supreme.” That alliance alone would secure legendary status for any pianist, although the records’ blend of spiritual adventure and jazz tradition, along with their keen quartet interplay and soloing, asserted a level of dynamics few artists came close to attaining.

But it was with a near 50-year career of his own that Tyner’s playing grew bolder. The albums he recorded during the 1970s for the Milestone label were particularly striking, shifting from solo piano works (the 1972 Coltrane tribute “Echoes of a Friend”), ferocious concert statements (the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival postcard record “Enlightenment” and it’s career-defining performance of “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit”) and even string-enhanced music (1976’s “Fly with the Wind”). The recordings heightened Tyner’s profile as a composer to a stature that met his already proven reputation as an instrumentalist.

It was just after the release of another 1976 gem, “Focal Point,” that Tyner’s music hit me on a more personal level. As a college freshman writing for the University of Kentucky’s student newspaper The Kernel, I was assigned to interview Tyner in the midst of a week-long engagement at a Short Street jazz club called O’Keefe’s. As a disciple of the then-flourishing fusion movement, my fascination with jazz was mostly centered on the electric heroes of the day – Weather Report, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Despite studying up on Tyner’s history, I was largely ignorant of the level of influence he held with legions of jazz contemporaries, including the electric artists I revered. That would take years for me to fully appreciate.

But on a rainy Saturday afternoon at a long-since-demolished Ramada Inn on Waller Avenue (a Subway restaurant now sits at that location), Tyner patiently fielded questions from an appreciative but woefully green journalism student. That was my first interview with a professional musician. Little did I comprehend the kind of opportunity I had been presented.

You don’t forget an encounter like that – a meeting with an artistic inspiration who was kind, patient and encouraging as you were finding your way. Many people have stories like that, of professionals who showed then support during their earliest days of pursuing a career. That was mine. It is one I will cherish to the end of my days.

After reading of Tyner’s death yesterday at the age of 81, the inspiration of that Saturday in early 1977 began to glow all over again. When I arrived home from work, I cued up a copy of “The Greeting,” another brilliant entry from Tyner’s Milestone catalog – a live album that leaps to life with the kind of brilliant acoustic vibrancy that makes the record sound like it was cut last week and not in 1978.

For his music, for his kindness and for his unwavering jazz spirit, a boundless thank you to the jazz titan who will forever be, as the title of his 1967 album proclaimed, The Real McCoy.

for frank

Frank Schaap, from a 2008 Facebook post by Clem Van Besouw.

Although there were many great moments of music and friendship, my favorite memory of Frank Schaap comes to mind in an instant.

It was the summer of 1992 and I was cast as Falstaff in a local outdoor production of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Woodland Park. The show’s producer and director came up with the idea of enlisting Frank, Nick Stump and Rodney Hatfield, all still very visible in local clubs after a decade as frontmen for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars, as Falstaff’s roguish cronies Bardolph, Pistol and Nym. They would play interlude blues music between scenes (this was a contemporary adaptation), which was second nature to them. The three also had the duties of conveying a few spoken lines of Shakespearean text, which wasn’t. At all. Every night, the response was different in our scenes. Sometimes they would ad-lib. Sometimes they would offer a deer-in-the-headlights gaze. And on one particular night, Frank deviated totally by proclaiming, “Let’s head over to Lynagh’s, boys. I hear there’s a cool band playing there tonight.” The band, of course, would be them.

Never at a loss for words or a chance to express the joy of his very own sense of live performance was what Frank was all about. He was a character so full of life and color that he would have been right at home in Shakespearean times. But his time – locally, at least – was the 1980s and ‘90s, when the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars were the uncontested Central Kentucky ambassadors of blues, country blues and all-around roots music cheer.

What I learned from the band was immeasurable. Its sound was a blend of Chicago and country blues with flourishes of swing that helped heighten my appreciation of artists I already knew (from Muddy Waters to Tom Waits) while steering me to many lesser visible pioneers that included the brilliant solo acoustic blues stylist John Hammond.

As the Metros’ local dates started to become less frequent as the ‘90s progressed, Frank became a local regular in an acoustic duo setting with Lexington bluesman Joey Broughman. I remember vividly when the two opened a Kentucky Theatre concert for Hammond. I recall easily how excited the two seemed by the opportunity and how thrilled those in attendance were in watching two local favorites sharing the bill with a blues legend. Hammond openly expressed his admiration for the duo from the stage, as well.

Frank’s contributions to the local music community extended to numerous other groups and performance settings. Above all that, though, he was a friend to so many, myself included. As the years passed and his local shows became more like brief layovers in a touring/busking life that had him leapfrogging between continents, I saw less and less of him. After Broughman’s passing in 2007, his Lexington performances became a true rarity.

Friendship, though, endures. I remember seeing Frank a few years ago at a local Starbuck’s. He was sitting outside alone, reading a newspaper and asked me to sit with him so we could briefly catch up. I was in a rush that day, but accepted the invitation. We wound up chatting about music and life for about 30 minutes. That was the last time I saw him. I question constantly, as many do, the reasoning behind most of my day-to-day actions. That day I saw Frank at Starbucks, I made the right call.

The song that came to mind upon hearing of Frank’s passing yesterday afternoon was an old Sonny Boy Williamson tune called “Fattening Frogs for Snakes.” It was a song I heard him sing with the Metros countless times. The tune was so much like Frank – keenly spirited, darkly playful and endlessly fun.

Thank for the music, Frank. Thank you for all the fun, spontaneity, wit and scholarly command you invested it with. You did the blues proud and made your friends prouder.

paul barrere, 1941-2019

Paul Barrere. Photo by Hank Randall.

I came to the music of Little Feat somewhat late in the game. The band’s reputation as a kind of hipster/hippie rock troupe from the West Coast, matching often whimsical narratives to rock melodies full of rough, rootsy authority, was already in place thanks to its first five albums. Two were cut as an initial quartet, the rest as a made-over, more richly orchestrated sextet that placed the vocals and guitarwork, each as sly and electric as the other, of Lowell George front and center.

Strict attention to the band, for me, took place after seeing it live for the first time in the spring of 1977, which roughly coincided with the release of its sixth album, “Time Loves a Hero.” Having appeared disconnected and, frankly, ill at the ’77 show at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum, George was letting his hold on the Little Feat sound slip. The “Times Loves a Hero” music was slicker, jazzier and more open to the voices that would become de facto leaders of the band from that point on – guitarist Paul Barrere and keyboardist Bill Payne.

Barrere didn’t so such change the George approach as modify it. A wicked slide guitarist, as was George, he smoothed out the creases in the Little Feat sound. The album was still full of George-level wit in songs like “Old Folks Boogie” (which Barrere wrote) and “Keeping Up with the Joneses” (which he co-composed with George). Similarly, Barrere’s vocals were more relaxed, yet full of swampy, Southern-fried comfort – a curiosity given his California roots.

George died in 1979 with Little Feat disbanding shortly thereafter. It reformed in 1988, with Craig Fuller, followed by Shaun Murphy, handling George’s vocal duties before they were eventually assimilated by Barrere. And so Little Feat has remained until today. While few of its post-George recordings caught lasting fire with fans (the 1988 comeback album “Let It Roll” being an exception), their live shows remained thrilling – a product of fusion-esque band dynamics, vintage rock and soul smarts and a performance stamina that remained undiminished until the years began taking their toll.

Drummer Richie Hayward died of liver cancer in 2010. Barrere was diagnosed with the same disease in 2015 following battles with Hepatitis C that began over two decades earlier. Barrere remained with Little Feat through this year, but opted out of a fall tour (that included a date at the Louisville Palace two weeks ago) to recover from medical treatments. He died yesterday at the age of 71.

My favored memory of Barrere was not the 1977 show. It was instead a 1990 appearance at the now demolished Cardinal Stadium in Louisville where Little Feat was opening for, of all people, Jimmy Buffett. I had zero interest in seeing Buffett but was thrilled to experience the reactivated Feat for the first time since George’s death. The sound was night and day when compared to the ’77 concert. Despite the vast outdoor setting, the band’s ensemble groove was dense but razor sharp during “Rock and Roll Doctor,” undeniably funky during a New Orleans-style makeover of “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and beautifully joyous throughout “Let It Roll” and “Rad Gumbo,” the latter two being among the most rhythmically infectious works of the post-George era.

Looking for a record of Barrere at his best? Then head right for the definitive Little Feat album, the 1978 concert chronicle “Waiting for Columbus,” which had George and Barrere in fine performance form and the already buoyant band sound bolstered by the Tower of Power horns.

So farewell, Mr. Barrere. Thanks for letting it roll so gloriously all these years.

ginger baker, 1939-2019

Ginger Baker.

In the authorized 2010 biography “Composing Himself,” the late Jack Bruce offered this recollection of hearing Ginger Baker for the first time following a 1962 gig in Cambridge.

“He looked like a demon in that cellar, sitting down there with his red hair. He had this drum kit that he made himself. I never heard drums sound so good. I’d never seen a drummer like him. I knew that I wanted to play with him.”

By 1966, Bruce and Baker, along with Eric Clapton, would form Cream, perhaps the most influential rock trio, outside of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, of its day. The band cut a mere four albums over its scant three-year lifespan, but still managed to change forever the face of rock ‘n’ roll. The first three recordings, 1966’s “Fresh Cream,” 1967’s “Disraeli Gears” and 1968’s “Wheels of Fire,” remain essential listening for any aspiring rock enthusiast. Both were stylistic mash-ups born out of electric blues, although each player had his signature contribution. For Baker, who died today at the age of 80, it was the construction of an elemental groove and a seemingly limitless set of variations to keep the beat from stagnating.

Listen to “We Were Wrong,” one of the many highlights from “Disraeli Gears,” to hear this in practice. Over an otherworldly high tenor vocal from Bruce, the initial beat is held in place by a simple hi-hat cymbal. Then Bruce goes wild with a rumbling that dances around the melody bolstered by tribal-level might. You almost sense it separating from the song itself to circle listeners in a way that brings them into the resulting séance.

Baker’s career would splinter in numerous directions after Cream’s split and a subsequent one album/one year tenure with Clapton in Blind Faith, all of which held far less commercial potential than his former bands. Such a scenario largely seemed to please the drummer. There was the primitive fusion music of Ginger Baker’s Air Force, the masterful early ‘70s Afrobeat collaboration with Fela Kuti, the splendid ‘90s jazz trio with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden and myriad projects in between that included recordings with everyone from Hawkwind to Public Image, Ltd.

There was also an offstage reputation to go with his world class music, specifically an ill-tempered disposition that turned unrepentantly ugly when met by an opposing artist of equal intensity. For much of Baker’s career, that artist would be Bruce (who died in 2014). The two would play together in numerous ensembles through the decades, most of which dissolved into seas of animosity, including a short-lived Cream reunion that only lasted long enough for brief engagements at the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall.

The only time I got to see Baker was with Bruce at a December 1989 performance at Bogart’s in Cincinnati to promote the bassist’s then-current “A Question of Time” album.

Baker agreed to serve as drummer for the tour, but reportedly never bothered to learn any of Bruce’s newer music. As such, the show was split into two sets, one involving then-current material with another drummer and a second centering on vintage Cream songs with Baker joining in.

Even then, Baker looked like an old man, despite the fact he was barely 50. His playing was still commanding, however. “Toad,” the Cream tune that was essentially a vehicle for an extended drum solo, remained the audience favorite, but his playing was equally inventive during the groove variations that fortified less obvious Cream works like “N.S.U.” and “Politician.”

Baker and Bruce were supposedly at each other’s throats the entire tour. Engaging in such conflict was probably in their contracts. But the artistic spirit that was ripe in the days of Cream, the drive that would carry both artists in markedly different directions during the ‘90s and beyond, was in fresh abundance at the Cincinnati show. That night, a legend – well, two legends – did themselves proud.

“Material and style aren’t so important,” wrote Ben Ratliff in a New York Times review of a 2013 club performance by Baker’s aptly titled Jazz Confusion band. “You’re getting the essence of his sound, up close, with two kick drums and two snare drums… and his personality.”

dr. john, 1941-2019

Dr. John (Mac Rebennack).

It was in the early 1970s, on that great televised seminar of contemporary music known as “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert,” that I was introduced to Dr. John.

Initially, he was a name among many – one of those artists a pre-teen kid was supposed to know about if he was serious about his devotion to rock ‘n’ roll. Well, here Dr. John was, making a house call to my living room TV dressed in layers of scarves and necklaces, tossing glitter in the air, playing piano like a rock-funk renegade and singing like the voodoo shaman he very much envisioned himself to be. In another month or two, Dr. John, born Mac Rebennack, would be all over rock radio with a blast of New Orleans funk called “Right Place, Wrong Time” and again a few months later with the vastly sunnier follow-up “Such a Night.”

The album those singles came from, 1973’s “In the Right Place,” was my first Dr. John record purchase. But what it became was a passport to the city of New Orleans and the world of music it contained. This wasn’t the Dixieland/Al Hirt jazz my father’s generation viewed New Orleans music to be or even the Jelly Roll Morton-schooled ragtime and swing that serious jazzers considered as the defining voices of Crescent City music. No, Dr. John was different. His music was darker, thicker and, in every purposeful way, trippier – hence the addendum to his performance moniker: The Night Tripper. As such, “In the Right Place” was a new-generation New Orleans summit that featured the city’s premier song stylist Allen Toussaint as producer and co-keyboardist and its coolest funk troupe, The Meters, as the record’s primary band. It was outrageous – an 11-song road map through the more subterranean, voodoo-infested avenues of Crescent City funk that sounded unlike anything I had heard.

But the enduring magic of Dr. John, who died Thursday at the age of 77, was how vast his musical reach was. In subsequent decades, he would cut albums of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong compositions, pop standards and solo piano meditations while gigging with everyone from The Band (he sang an uproarious “Such a Night” for “The Last Waltz”) to Art Blakey.

Still, nothing satisfied more than when Rebennack was in full Dr. John mode, whether it was though the seven Atco albums cut between 1968 and 1974 that shifted from heavily psychedelic variations on New Orleans funk (the 1968 debut “Gris-Gris”) to scholarly nods to Crescent City forefathers like Professor Longhair and Huey Smith (1972’s “Gumbo”) or forgotten later albums like “City Lights” (1978), “Creole Moon” (2001) and the Dan Auerbach-produced “Locked Down” (2012).

I got to interview Dr. John twice ahead of Lexington concerts in 2009 and 2015. His mood was strikingly different during the conversations, although his demeanor was consistently polite.

The 2009 interview came four years after Hurricane Katrina and the floods that erupted in its aftermath had forever changed the face of his homeland. Infuriated that the rest of the country had mistakenly thought New Orleans had magically healed itself from the wreckage, Rebennack released an album called “City That Care Forgot” that embraced the resilience of those who continued to work through the devastation of Katrina.

“Let’s put it this way,” he told me in 2009. “I ain’t giving up. We’re a people of a good spirit. These are people I trust with my life. They’re resilient.”

His tone was lighter in 2015, when the New Orleans inspiration that created such a variety of depth and color in his music, seemed almost redemptive in its intensity, as was his optimism at still being able to perform in his early 70s. The word he used repeatedly to describe his touring band, his audience reception and his entire sense of performance vigor was “slammin’.”

“I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll,” he said in 2015. “You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields.”

leon redbone, 1949-2019

Leon Redbone. Photo by Patricia De Gorostarzu.

To appreciate the sensibility of a performer like Leon Redbone, you need only read the obituary posted currently on his website. For all the shades of vintage folk, blues, jazz and antique pop that colored his music and the similarly vintage parlor airs he maintained during his performances, the singer possessed a wicked sense of humor. With notices in the press around the globe announcing his death on Thursday came the revelation of his age – something the mercurial Redbone never revealed during his life. He was 69. But the website obit tossed fact and reason to the wind, stating he had “crossed the Delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”

My first reaction to reading this, aside from immediate laughter, was that Redbone had undoubtedly penned the tribute himself long the hour came to bid adieu.

All this enforces as unlikely a profile as you will find in a pop artist – one that bowed not only to the songs and sentiments of a seemingly ancient stylistic age but to the entertainment traditions that superseded them. He may have serenaded us with the songs of Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Johnny Mercer and other classicists in a vocal style best described as a mumbling croon. But Redbone was pure vaudeville in most other performance respects, whether it was through the playful gasps, shouts and train wreck scatting that adorned his version of “The Sheik of Araby” (from perhaps his best known album, 1977’s “Double Time”) or the instance when he played the long-defunct Breeding’s on New Circle Road during the early ‘80s and snapped a photograph of the crowd in front of him. “I’m doing this so I can remember each and every face.”

What made Redbone’s pop celebrity status especially odd was, what else, timing. The fact his artistic mindset seemed rooted in the ‘20s and ‘30s was one thing. But he became a performance regular on the early seasons of “Saturday Night Live” and turned archaic masterworks like “Shine on Harvest Moon” into a rock radio staples at a time when the punk revolution was at its peak. In fact, Redbone’s commercial apex – from 1975 to 1979 – mirrored the heyday of punk’s zenith almost completely.

Mainstream fascination with Redbone faded somewhat from the ‘80s onward, although he remained a prolific recording artist and performer until failing health brought on retirement in 2015. During the latter half of his career, he would play Lexington numerous times, especially the Kentucky Theatre. Redbone’s manner was always elegantly reserved with an artistic stance that paid full reverence to the vintage songs he was interpreting. But he also remained open enough for plenty of kitschy fun.

“Basically, I just try to capture a sentimental, melancholy moment,” Redbone told me in an interview prior to a 1999 concert at the Kentucky. “Most of the tunes I do are pretty much steered to that. Early Jimmie Rodgers recordings, for example, which also capture that mood, have inspired me in that regard. But the sense of timelessness has ultimately become unnecessary in modern music. That sort of subtle and genteel moment is nearly disappearing. So, consequently, music doesn’t really have that kind of sentiment anymore.”

the patriarch of the festival

Bob Cornett at the Festival of the Bluegrass in 2013. (Herald-Leader file photo.)

Even though he effectively retired from overseeing the Festival of the Bluegrass some years ago, Bob Cornett never disappeared. In recent summers, he would quietly roam the grounds, greet longtime patrons and chat with musicians that have made the event a performance priority during the summer touring months. With a manner cordial and reserved, he didn’t draw attention to himself. To those that knew him and understood the kind of festival he established, along with its lasting cultural importance to Central Kentucky, he was royalty and was respected as such. But when Cornett came within view, no sense of ceremony was required or expected. It was more like a neighbor calling.

“There’s Bob.” Those were the words you heard trickle within the audience throughout the festival. There was no small sense of comfort in hearing them, too. With wife and festival co-founder Jean Cornett having died in 2015, Bob was the last prominent link to the event’s beginnings when another bluegrass generation reigned in Central Kentucky.

With Cornett’s passing yesterday at the age of 89, Lexington lost one of string music’s most honored torchbearers. If Bill Monroe was the rightly dubbed Father of Bluegrass, then the Cornetts were monarchs of the music in our corner of the bluegrass world. No one has done more for giving bluegrass such a prominent, lasting performance platform. More importantly, no one has stressed the need for using that platform, traditional in design as it was, to transcend generations. Anyone who remotely knew Bob Cornett will acknowledge that among his primary passions relating to the festival were the offstage camp sessions that allowed young, eager musicians the opportunity to experience his own passion and devotion for bluegrass.

Sad as Cornett’s passing is, he leaves behind something more than a mere legacy. The Festival of the Bluegrass continues to thrive under the direction of succeeding generations of the Cornett family. At least from an outsider’s perspective, there is no need to ask the usual panic question, “How will it continue without him?” The answer is it will do fine. Bob and Jean Cornett instilled in their children and grandchildren a very visible will and need to carry on with the event. They long ago took the management reins so that the founders, in their final years, could enjoy their well-earned emeritus roles and attend essentially as patrons – patrons, mind you, with a homespun, yet unavoidably royal aura.

marty balin, 1942-2018

Jefferson Airplane in 1967 on the cover of “Surrealistic Pillow.” Back row: Jack Casady, Grace Slick, Marty Balin. Front row: Jorma Kaukonoen, Paul Kantner, Spencer Dryden.

Any contemporary band is defined by its lead singer. That role might not always dictate the musical vision of the ensemble at hand, but the vocalist is the individual whose presence is most unavoidably visible. If a band happens to have more than one featured singer, the group personality either becomes more diverse or fractures entirely.

During it psychedelic heyday, between 1966 and 1970, the Jefferson Airplane utilized four lead singers – two were exclusively vocalists (Marty Balin and Grace Slick), two others, featured less frequently, doubled as guitarists (Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner). For many, it was Slick – a fashionable and authoritative presence on and off stage – that dominated the Airplane’s vocal crew. But Balin, who died Thursday at the age of 76, largely set the standard for the band’s flight pattern and offered, nearly a decade latter, an out-of-nowhere hit.

Balin was a singer versed in pop and poetry, a blend that propelled the Airplane’s 1966 debut album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” a record cut prior to Slick’s involvement and the full emergence of Kaukonen and Kantner as singing alternatives. But it was with the vanguard 1967 recording “Surrealistic Pillow” that Balin’s broader pop profile revealed itself, whether it was through the uneasy calm of “Today” and “Comin’ Back to Me” or the unrelenting bravado of “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and, especially, “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” a parable about television that bordered on funk. But the album also included two monster hits sung by the newly recruited Slick (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”) as well as a critically lauded guitar instrumental by Kaukonen (“Embryonic Journey”). That meant having to share the spotlight.

The Airplane’s front line would stay intact though the recording of its leanest, most immediate album (1969’s “Volunteers”) as well as the euphoric highs and disastrous lows of two noted music festivals (Woodstock and Altamont) that reflected the extremes of late ‘60s pop counterculture. He left the band in 1970. The Airplane itself folded in 1973

There is a bizarre footnote to the band’s saga. Reborn in 1974 as Jefferson Starship (without Kaukonen or founding Airplane bassist Jack Casady), the band earned a huge No. 1 hit with 1975’s Balin written and sung “Miracles,”  an ultra smooth pop-soul crooner that placed Jefferson Starship at the very heart of the pop mainstream the Jefferson Airplane spurned a decade earlier.

Balin played Lexington only once that I know off – a May 1978 concert at Rupp Arena with Jefferson Starship, but the wings were clearly coming off at that point. It played like more a pack of disparate, discontented artists than as a actual band. A year later, Balin and Slick were gone, Southern singer Mickey Thomas was picked up and a move deep into ‘80s pop began. This was the band that became simply Starship, which still tours today.

All this makes Balin sound like a mere board member of rock ‘n’ roll conglomerate, which is perhaps what he really was. But listen to his best recorded performances, from “Comin’ Back to Me” to “Miracles,” and you hear a singer taking on the world. It’s just that there were a lot of other equally eager hands in his ranks also reaching for it.

aretha franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin, circa 1968.

Some friends and I had gathered at Josie’s for breakfast this morning. We discussed bad movies, politics and getting old – the usual rubbish. Then the five or six televisions in the eatery tuned to almost as many different news stations all switched to a breaking topic.


We knew the passing of Aretha Franklin was imminent, given reports of her failing health and subsequent hospice care. But that didn’t lessen the blow. If you saw a train coming at you, even in slow motion, would that lighten the fury and devastation of its ultimate impact?

Bearing the often touted but still rightly earned title of Queen of Soul, Franklin was the kind of artist whose influence upon modern music simply cannot be understated.

As a vocalist and soul music stylist, she was unparalleled. She could take a gospel staple like “Amazing Grace,” a watershed Carole King tune like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or a classic work by one of her contemporaries, like Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and make them sound remarkably like-minded. The blend of stamina, soul, grace, joy and intensity within her vocals was so assuredly balanced that Franklin made any song she sang her own. But there was always emotive variety. Her performances could be as soothing as a whisper, as persuasive as a preacher or as unrelentingly forceful as a battering ram.

As a woman artist that came to prominence during the ‘60s, she was also a towering voice of independence. There were others, of course, who strayed from roads to stardom created solely on image. But Franklin was as strong as oak when it came to standing up for herself, her music and her career. “Respect” wasn’t just a song for her. It was a mantra forever ingrained into her entire artistic being. No wonder so many women continue to champion the song 50 years after it became a hit.

There was humor, too. It’s tough to forget her single, show-stealing scene in John Landis’ 1980 film “The Blues Brothers.” That’s where Franklin played the owner of a soul food restaurant that led a diner dance hall routine centered around “Think” as a defiant ultimatum to her husband (played by Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who died in June). Of course, that followed her matter-of-factly pegging the film’s lead characters, Jake and Elwood Blues (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) as “two honkies dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants.”

But Franklin’s departure runs deeper than that. She was one of the last connections this generation had to the vanguard soul music fashioned by Atlantic Records and its subsidiary labels during the late 1960s – a stable of artists that included Redding, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Solomon Burke and many others. Their music, of course, has been thankfully immortalized on recordings. But there will simply never be another sound to equal that Atlantic era’s sense of natural, impassioned R&B.

My favorite Franklin song? That’s easy. It was the title tune to the first Aretha album I ever bought – “Spirit in the Dark.” Released in the fall of 1970, its sound was slightly looser and less produced, but was in no way less fervent. Composed by Franklin, the song is essentially a gospel work fashioned during a time when the youthful idealism of the late ‘60s had vanished, leaving a social fabric weather-beaten by Vietnam and racial strife. But like many great gospel works, it opens with a quiet glimmer of hope before eventually boiling over with tent-revival style jubilation.

“Tell me, my brother, brother, brother, how do you feel?” Franklin sings as the song gathers steam. “Do you feel like dancing? Then get up and let’s start dancing.”

That might seem less empowering than the chorus of “Respect.” But for today, the day the Queen has left us, it is comforting advice. After all, when the spirit in the dark comes out into the light and invites you to dance, don’t ask. Just start moving.”


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