Archive for an appreciation

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.

Aretha.

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.”

 

for rick baldwin

Rick Baldwin. Photo by Jonathan Lewis.

Bass players have a perhaps stereotypical reputation for being unobtrusive in a performance setting. They’re known for leaving the spotlight to the singers and soloists and relishing their chosen role of establishing and fortifying a groove.

That’s largely what Rick Baldwin adhered to throughout his career in Lexington music venues and quite often beyond. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the soulful bass presence for the Metropolitan Blues All-Stars and subsequent bands led by All-Stars guitarist Nick Stump. More recently, he played with the folk quartet TDH4 with Reel World String Band mainstays Bev Futrell and Karen Jones.

Baldwin died today of a heart attack, but had been hospitalized recently with pneumonia. He was 63.

“Ricky was my roommate on the road for 20 years or more,” Stump said. “He was the kindest, gentlest man I ever knew in my life. He was so gracious. In all of the time we played music together, we never had one cross word. I don’t think he had cross words with anyone in the band, and that’s a rarity in this business. I wanted to punch out every one of the other guys at one time or another. But with Ricky, I think the worst thing he ever did to me was give me pizza.”

A lifelong Lexingtonian, Baldwin had experienced a series of health issues during his life, including a two decade-plus battle with multiple sclerosis. Stump organized a benefit at The Dame in 2005 for Baldwin to offset mounting medical bills. At the time, the MS had attacked his optic nerves causing blindness.

“Ray Charles managed to make music his whole life,” Baldwin told me prior to the benefit. “Why should I be complaining?

“I know I’m not the only person in this boat. There are millions of people out there in horrible shape who feel like they’re alone in this world. When I get my vision back, I’ve got a lot of thank-you letters to write.”

Baldwin’s other medical issues included high blood pressure. Stump recalled instances – unintentionally humorous ones, in retrospect – where Baldwin’s passion for making music shot far higher than his blood pressure.

“I can remember one time where his blood pressure was out of control down in Johnson City (Tenn.). We knew a nurse there, so we called her. She said, ‘Well, give him a half-shot of whiskey every time his blood pressure shoots up. I sat there all night giving him whiskey.

“Ricky cared more about playing music and being with the band than he did about anything.”

charles neville, 1938-2018

Charles Neville.

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Neville Brothers were monsters – four New Orleans siblings that could do it all. Soul, funk, pop, jazz, you name it. If it had a groove worth exploring, the Nevilles could make it their own. Brothers Charles was probably the most overlooked of the four, but his saxophone work was as integral to the Nevilles’ ensemble sound as Art’s funky keyboard lines, Aaron’s otherworldly vocals and Cyril’s soul crusader stage presence.

Charles Neville died at age 79 earlier today after battling pancreatic cancer.

The saxophonist lived several lives before the Neville Brothers’ commanding Crescent City music took firm hold of audiences outside of New Orleans during the 1980s. Some of those lives circled around addiction and incarceration at the dawn of the ‘60s but bloomed into the gradual establishment of a lasting music career as the decade progressed.

The Neville Brothers grew out of the famed Mardi Gras Indian troupe known as The Wild Tchoupitoulas. But it was with the siblings’ second album, 1981’s “Fiyo on the Bayou,” that their sound came to a boil. The album was both a career summary and career launch, touching on Art’s funk heritage with The Meters, Aaron’s vintage pop sentiments and the New Orleans street music Cyril turned into a vital new hybrid.

For many, though, 1989’s Daniel Lanois-produced “Yellow Moon,” the Nevilles’ finest recorded hour, resonated most. Lanois was the producer-of-the-moment at the time, having piloted mega-platinum albums for U2 and Peter Gabriel. What he brought to the Nevilles was a subtle ambience that enhanced the already fervent spiritual cast of the siblings’ music. As a result, the Cyril-led “Sister Rosa” became a plain speaking social anthem and the Aaron-fueled take on Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” evolved into a jazz meditation. Curiously, it was the predominantly instrumental “Healing Chant,” dominated by Charles’ snake charming soprano sax playing, that earned the Nevilles the first of their three career Grammys.

Luckily, the Nevilles played Lexington and Louisville frequently through the years. Aaron was the celebrity, the audience focal point. But the group’s music was always a family affair, a textured groove that cooked into a wild gumbo that no band in or out of New Orleans could match. That recipe would never have that sounded that distinct had Brothers Charles not been adding his unassuming but profoundly flavorful touch. He made the Fiyo burn all the more brilliantly.

pat dinizio, 1955-2017

Pat DiNizio.

The Smithereens always relished being a band of splendid essentials, embracing a love of pop songcraft while remaining very much a rock unit.

That’s why their best known songs – “House We Used to Live In,” “A Girl Like You” and the signature hit “Behind the Wall of Sleep” – were built around that most pivotal of rock ‘n’ roll components, the mighty guitar hook. From there, the band drew upon pop blueprints from the 1960s (the Beatles, the Byrds and the Kinks were the most detectable influences) but there was also a mildly dark cast, a studied distance, within the singing of frontman Pat DiNizio. It was as though he was the stern but very loving guardian of a pop tradition encompassing styles and sounds that would bounce about in Smithereens songs.

You could spot one of their tunes in a heartbeat by the hooks, by the vocal solemnity and by the tight-as-a-drum rhythmic drive.

The Smithereens never claimed to be the most innovative band to hit the stage. The guys stuck to basics and knew the structure of an elemental pop-informed rock ‘n’ roll tune inside and out. They could also deliver the goods earnestly, without frills, in performance. The band’s cover of the 1966 Outsiders hit “Time Won’t Let Me” was always a favorite. It revealed everything that made their original compositions so much fun: great hooks, great melodic structure and an unwavering rock ‘n’ roll spirit.

The news arrived this morning that DiNizio had died at age 62. With many focused on results of the highly publicized special election for an open Senate seat in Alabama, his passing was easy to overlook. But then, so were the Smithereens. For over three decades, they were as unfashionable and they were reliable. Trends came and went, but the Smithereens, resistent to change, proudly rocked on.

“In the old days, when we were lucky enough to become successful, we were living on a bus 300 days a year,” DiNizio told me in an interview prior to the band’s 2014 performance at the Christ the King Oktoberfest. “That lasted for about 10 years. The fact that we survived that and everyone is still alive and everyone is still friends says a lot. But we come from a certain dedication, a certain set of ideals, a certain aesthetic, if you will. There is a spirit of brotherhood here that says we’re all on the same page.”

tom petty, 1950-2107

tom petty.

Yesterday afternoon I came across a Facebook post from a friend in deep and understandable distress concerning not only the horrible shooting deaths of nearly 60 people Sunday night in Las Vegas but the ongoing divide within our country that remains a backdrop of such tragedy. The posting came with a simple plea: “Please, someone, give me some good news.”

No sooner than I finished reading that than three successive emails arrived, all concerning Tom Petty. Found unconscious at his home. Not breathing. No brain activity. His death, at age 66, was confirmed this morning.

We won’t try to equate the passing of an American rock ‘n’ roll colossus with what happened in Las Vegas. This isn’t a contest, just a sad footnote to an indescribably sad day.

The most immediate reaction to Petty’s death is simply shock. He had completed what was widely regarded as his final major tour as recently as last week (a trek that took him to Cincinnati’s US Bank Arena in June). You simply don’t expect an artist with such seeming invincibility to simply exit so suddenly. But when do such departures ever really announce themselves?

The overriding sense of loss, though, comes from the fact that Petty was part of a very small circle of American rock stylists whose music came of age in the 1970s by embracing essentials – a sense of rock ‘n’ roll vitality that largely sidestepped trends, a songwriting ability that embodied an everyman stance without unduly flaunting it and, let’s face it, enough of a celebrity profile to win him the kind of commercial appeal to fortify an enduring audience. It’s a short a list. Bruce Springsteen is on it. Bob Seger, despite a career that began to catch fire in the late ‘60s, is on it. The company thins out pretty quickly after that.

Petty came to us at the unlikeliest of times. A Floridian who made his fortune after relocating to Southern California, he released three initial albums with his Heartbreakers band – “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” (1976), “You’re Gonna Get It” (1978) and the breakthrough “Damn the Torpedoes” (1979) – at a time when rock and pop were split between mainstream disco and upstart punk. Petty avoided the extremes of both by embracing a meat-and-potatoes rock design that sounded more Heartland than West Coast in terms of inspiration. The backbone of his enduring catalog – “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” “Refugee” and others – hails from those first three albums.

Petty also accomplished something few artists outside of Springsteen and Seger could. He rode new waves of popularity in ensuing decades.

“Full Moon Fever” – technically a solo album, but with a Jeff Lynne-produced sound largely in league with the Heartbreakers’ music – yielded the defiant hit “I Won’t Back Down” as the 1980s closed to become as popular as anything Petty cut during the preceding decade. Then in 1994 came “Wildflowers,” another record with another famed producer (Rick Rubin) that stripped away the Lynne-enhanced pop-veneer for some of Petty’s most elemental and endearing songs.

There weren’t many hits after that, but there didn’t need to be. Petty never made a bad album. Even his last two Heartbreakers works, “Mojo” (2010) and “Hypnotic Eye” (2014) possessed great songs even if their more relaxed feel provided Petty an elder status he largely shrugged off in performance. But those records are great listens and serve as proof of Petty’s ability to age with grace and vigor.

I saw him perform probably a half dozen times, none of them recently. Nothing compared to my first Petty show, however – a February 1983 outing at Louisville Gardens with Nick Lowe and Paul Carrack playing together as an opening act, all for $10.

Petty’s hit at the time was the synth-heavy “You Got Lucky.” But it was another then-new tune that defined the evening – a stubbornly assertive and anthemic non-hit called “One Story Town.” The reason was simple. It embraced fully the band that pervaded every corner of Petty’s music, right down to his singing – The Byrds.

Just thinking of that song puts a smile my face. Then again, that’s what great rock ‘n’ roll does – it makes your spirits soar, even at the saddest of times.

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