Miriam Makeba


Miriam+Makeba

Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 9 November 2008), nicknamed Mama Africa, was a Grammy Award-winning South African singer and civil rights activist.

In the 1960s she was the first artist from Africa to popularize African music around the world. She is best known for the song “Pata Pata”, first recorded in 1957 and released in the U.S. in 1967. She recorded and toured with many popular artists, such as Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, and her former husband Hugh Masekela.

Makeba campaigned against the South African system of apartheid. The South African government responded by revoking her passport in 1960 and her citizenship and right of return in 1963. As the apartheid system crumbled she returned home for the first time in 1990.

Makeba died of a heart attack on 9 November 2008 after performing in a concert in Italy organized to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organization local to the region of Campania.

Early years

Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932. Her mother was a Swazi sangoma (traditional healer-herbalist). Her father, who died when she was six years old, was a Xhosa. When she was eighteen days old, her mother was arrested for selling umqombothi, an African homemade beer brewed from malt and cornmeal. Her mother was sentenced to a six-month prison term, so Miriam spent her first six months of life in jail. As a child, she sang in the choir of the Kilmerton Training Institute in Pretoria, a primary school that she attended for eight years.

In 1950 at the age of eighteen, Makeba gave birth to her only child, Bongi Makeba, whose father was Makeba’s first husband James Kubay. Makeba was then diagnosed with breast cancer, and her husband left her shortly afterwards

Her professional career began in the 1950s when she was featured in the South African jazz group the Manhattan Brothers, and appeared for the first time on a poster. She left the Manhattan Brothers to record with her all-woman group, The Skylarks, singing a blend of jazz and traditional melodies of South Africa. As early as 1956, she released the single “Pata Pata”, which was played on all the radio stations and made her name known throughout South Africa.

She had a short-lived marriage in 1959 to Sonny Pillay, a South African singer of Indian descent. Her break came in that year when she had a short guest appearance in Come Back, Africa, an anti-apartheid documentary produced and directed by American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin. The short cameo made an enormous impression on the viewers and Rogosin managed to organise a visa for her to attend the première of the film at the twenty-fourth Venice Film Festival in Italy, where the film won the prestigious Critics’ Award. That year, Makeba sang the lead female role in the Broadway-inspired South African musical King Kong; among those in the cast was musician Hugh Masekela. She made her U.S. debut on 1 November 1959 on The Steve Allen Show.

Exile

I always wanted to leave home. I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That’s when it hurts.

—Miriam Makeba

Makeba then travelled to London where she met Harry Belafonte, who assisted her in gaining entry to the United States and achieving fame there. When she tried to return to South Africa in 1960 for her mother’s funeral, she discovered that her South African passport had been cancelled. She signed with RCA Victor and released Miriam Makeba, her first U.S. studio album, in 1960. In 1962, Makeba and Belafonte sang at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden, but Makeba did not go to the aftershow party because she was ill. President Kennedy insisted on meeting her, so Belafonte sent a car to pick her up and she met the President of the United States. In 1963, Makeba released her second studio album for RCA, The World of Miriam Makeba. An early example of world music, the album peaked at number eighty-six on the Billboard 200. Later that year, after testifying against apartheid before the United Nations, her South African citizenship and her right to return to the country were revoked. She was a woman without a country, but the world came to her aid, and Guinea, Belgium and Ghana issued her international passports, and she became, in effect, a citizen of the world. In her life, she held nine passports, and was granted honorary citizenship in ten countries.

In 1964, Makeba and Masekela were married, divorcing two years later.

In 1966, Makeba received the Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording together with Harry Belafonte for An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. The album dealt with the political plight of black South Africans under apartheid, and it was one of the first American albums to present traditional Zulu, Sotho and Swahili songs in an authentic setting. From the time of her New York debut at the Village Vanguard, her fame and reputation grew. She released many of her most famous hits in the United States, including “The Click Song” (“Qongqothwane” in Xhosa) and “Malaika”. Time called her the “most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years,” and Newsweek compared her voice to “the smoky tones and delicate phrasing” of Ella Fitzgerald and the “intimate warmth” of Frank Sinatra. Despite the success that made her a star in the U.S., she wore no makeup and refused to curl her hair for shows, thus establishing a style that would come to be known internationally as the “Afro look”. In 1967, more than ten years after she wrote the song, the single “Pata Pata” was released in the United States and became a worldwide hit.

I’d already lived in exile for 10 years, and the world is free, even if some of the countries in it aren’t, so I packed my bags and left.

—Miriam Makeba

Her marriage to Trinidad-born civil rights activist, Black Panther, and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused controversy in the United States, and her record deals and tours were cancelled. As a result, the couple moved to Guinea, her home for the next 15 years, where they became close with President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife, Andrée. Makeba was appointed Guinea’s official delegate to the United Nations, for which she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize in 1986. She also separated from Carmichael in 1973 and continued to perform primarily in Africa, Europe and Asia, but not in the United States, where a de facto boycott was in effect. Makeba was one of the entertainers at the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaïre. She addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the second time in 1975. She divorced Carmichael in 1978 and married an airline executive in 1980.

In those years, when I came to the States, people were always asking me why I didn’t sing anymore. I’d tell them, ‘I sing all around the world—Asia, Africa, Europe—but if you don’t sing in the US, then you haven’t really made it.’ That’s why I’ll always be grateful to Paul Simon. He allowed me to bring my music back to my friends in this country.

—Miriam Makeba

After the death of her daughter Bongi in 1985, she decided to move to Brussels In the following year, Hugh Masekela introduced Makeba to Paul Simon, and a few months later she embarked on the very successful Graceland Tour, which was documented on music video. Two concerts held in Harare, Zimbabwe, were filmed in 1987 for release as Graceland: The African Concert. After touring the world with Simon, Warner Bros. Records signed Makeba and she released Sangoma (“Healer”), an a cappella album of healing chants named in honour of her mother who was an “isangoma” (“a healer”). Shortly thereafter, her autobiography Makeba: My Story was published and subsequently translated from English into other languages including German, French, Dutch, Italian and Spanish. She took part in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, a popular-music concert staged on 11 June 1988 at Wembley Stadium, London, and broadcast to 67 countries and an audience of 600 million. Also referred to as Freedomfest, Free Nelson Mandela Concert, and Mandela Day, the event called for Mandela’s release.

Return to South Africa

Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute increased pressure on the government of South Africa to release Mandela, and in 1990, State President of South Africa Frederik Willem de Klerk reversed the ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organisations, and announced that Nelson Mandela would shortly be released from prison. Mandela, who was effectively released from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on 11 February 1990, persuaded Miriam Makeba to return to South Africa. She returned home on 10 June 1990, on her French passport.

In 1991, Makeba, with Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone and Masekela, recorded and released her studio album, Eyes on Tomorrow. It combined jazz, R&B, pop, and African music, and was a hit in Africa. Makeba and Gillespie then toured the world together to promote it. In November of the same year, she made a guest appearance in the episode “Olivia Comes Out of the Closet” of The Cosby Show. In 1992, she starred in the film Sarafina!. The film’s plot centers on students involved in the 1976’s Soweto youth uprisings, and Makeba portrayed the title character’s mother, “Angelina”. The following year she released Sing Me a Song.

On 16 October 1999, Miriam Makeba was nominated Goodwill Ambassador of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In January 2000, her album, Homeland, produced by Cedric Samson and Michael Levinsohn for the New York City based record label Putumayo World Music, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best World Music Album category. She worked closely with Graça Machel-Mandela, who at the time was the South African first lady, for children suffering from HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and the physically handicapped.

In 2001, she was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold by the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin, “for outstanding services to peace and international understanding”. She shared the Polar Music Prize with Sofia Gubaidulina. The prize is regarded as Sweden’s foremost musical honour. They received their Prize from Carl XVI Gustaf King of Sweden during a nationally-televised ceremony at Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, on 27 May 2002. She also took part in the 2002 documentary Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, where she and others recalled the struggles of black South Africans against the injustices of apartheid through the use of music. In 2004, Makeba was voted 38th in the Top 100 Great South Africans. Makeba started a worldwide farewell tour in 2005, holding concerts in all of those countries that she had visited during her working life.

Death and legacy

On 9 November 2008, she became ill while taking part in a concert organized to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organisation local to the Region of Campania. The concert was being held in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, Italy. Makeba suffered a heart attack after singing her hit song “Pata Pata”, and was taken to the “Pineta Grande” clinic, where doctors were unable to revive her. Her publicist notes that Makeba had suffered “severe arthritis” for some time. She and family members were based in Northriding, Gauteng, at the time of her death.

On 25, 26 and 27 September 2009, a tribute show to Makeba entitled “Hommage à Miriam Makeba” and curated by Grammy Award-winning Beninoise singer-songwriter and activist Angélique Kidjo for the Festival d’Ile de France, was held at the Cirque d’hiver in Paris. The same show but with the English title of “Mama Africa: Celebrating Miriam Makeba” was held at the Barbican in London on 21 November 2009. Mama Africa, a documentary film about the life of Miriam Makeba, co-written and directed by Finnish film director Mika Kaurismäki, was released in 2011. On 4 March 2013 Google honored her with a doodle on the homepage.

 

Free


FreeBBCSessionsFrontOuterCover

Free was an English rock band formed in London in 1968 best known for their 1970 signature song “All Right Now”. They disbanded in 1973 and lead singer Paul Rodgers went on to become a frontman of the band Bad Company along with Simon Kirke on drums; lead guitarist Paul Kossoff formed Back Street Crawler and died from a drug-induced heart failure at the age of 25 in 1976. Bassist Andy Fraser formed Sharks.

The band was famed for its sensational live shows and nonstop touring. However, early studio albums did not sell very well – until the release of Fire and Water which featured the massive hit “All Right Now”. The song helped secure them a place at the huge Isle of Wight Festival 1970 where they played to 600,000 people.

By the early 1970s, Free was one of the biggest-selling British blues-rock groups; by the time the band dissolved in 1973, they had sold more than 20 million albums around the world and had played more than 700 arena and festival concerts. “All Right Now,” remains a rock staple, and had been entered into ASCAP’s “One Million” airplay singles club.

Rolling Stone has referred to the band as “British hard rock pioneers”. The magazine ranked Rodgers No. 55 in its list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time”, while Kossoff was ranked No. 51 in its list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”.

Free were signed to Island Records in the UK and A&M Records in North America. Both labels became part of the PolyGram group in 1989, then Universal Music Group in 1998; UMG now controls the band’s catalogue worldwide.

History

Most remarkable about the birth of Free was the young age of the band members who first came together to rehearse and play their first gig that same evening at the Nag’s Head pub in Battersea, London, on 19 April 1968. Bass player Andy Fraser was 15 years old, lead guitarist Paul Kossoff was 17, and both lead singer Paul Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke were 18. By November of that year, having been given the name Free by Alexis Korner, they had recorded their first album Tons Of Sobs for Island Records and, although it was not released until the following year, the album documents their first six months together and contains studio renditions of much of their early live set.

Paul Kossoff and Simon Kirke first became friends in the R&B band Black Cat Bones but they wanted to move on. Paul Kossoff saw vocalist Paul Rodgers singing with Brown Sugar while visiting the Fickle Pickle, an R&B club in London’s Finsbury Park. He was immediately impressed and asked if he could jam with Rodgers onstage. Along with Kirke, they would go on to form Free with the addition of Andy Fraser, who at the age of 15 had already been playing with John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.

Unlike their previous albums Tons of Sobs and Free, Fire and Water – released in 1970 – was a huge success, largely due to the album containing the hit single “All Right Now”, which reached No. 1 on the UK rock music charts, No. 2 on the UK singles chart and No. 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album reached No. 2 in the UK charts and No. 17 on the U.S charts making it the most successful Free album. Highway was their fourth studio album, recorded extremely quickly in September 1970. Though widely considered[by whom?] to be an excellent follow-up to Fire and Water, Highway performed poorly in the charts, reaching No. 41 in the UK and No. 190 in the US.

In April 1971, due to differences between singer Paul Rodgers and bassist Andy Fraser, the drug problems of guitarist Paul Kossoff, and inconsistent record sales, the band broke up. This led to the release of the live album in 1971 called Free Live!. Early in 1972 the band set aside their differences and reformed in an effort to save Kossoff from his growing drug addiction, and in June of the same year released Free at Last.

But all was not well with the band. Bassist Andy Fraser left the band in mid-1972 due to Paul Kossoff’s unreliability in being able to perform at shows or even showing up. The remaining members recruited Japanese bass player Tetsu Yamauchi and keyboardist John “Rabbit” Bundrick, who had worked with Kossoff and Kirke during Free’s initial split, recording Kossoff, Kirke, Tetsu and Rabbit and what would be Free’s final album, Heartbreaker. Free disbanded in early 1973 with Rodgers and Kirke going on to form Bad Company that same year. Fraser went on to form the band Sharks and later The Andy Fraser Band, and Kossoff would form the band Back Street Crawler.

With Kossoff in better health again in late 1975, he was delighted that ex-colleagues Rodgers and Kirke asked him to join them on stage for two nights. A British tour was set to begin on 25 April 1976 with Back Street Crawler headlining with Bad Company in support of Back Street Crawler’s second album, but again Kossoff’s drug addictions contributed to a drastic decline in the guitarist’s health. On a flight from Los Angeles to New York City on 19 March 1976, Paul Kossoff died from drug-related heart problems at the age of 25. Some speculate[who?] that he was forced to take drugs due to his illness.

Alexis Korner played a part in the Free story, recommending Andy Fraser to the band, providing the name “Free” and encouraging their early efforts. The sound that would be a trademark of Free is heard in songs like “All Right Now”, “Trouble On Double Time”, “Fire And Water” and “Wishing Well”, with Paul Rodgers being known in the rock media as “The Voice”. Rodgers would go on to explore the heavy blues stylings of Free again in his solo career during the 1980s and 1990s, and in the bands The Firm and The Law.

“All Right Now” was a No. 1 hit in over 20 territories and recognized by ASCAP(American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) in 1990 for garnering 1,000,000 plus radio plays in the US by late 1989, and in 2000 an award was given to Paul Rodgers by the British Music Industry when “All Right Now” passed 2,000,000 radio plays in the UK.

Most recently Paul Rodgers has joined the remaining members of Queen (Brian May and Roger Taylor), as vocalist. In September 2008, Queen + Paul Rodgers released their first studio album The Cosmos Rocks. Rodgers also performs Free and Bad Company songs whilst on tour with Queen, in addition to the traditional Queen songs and new cuts from their most recently released album.

 

Billie Holiday


 billie-holiday

Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), also called Lady Day, was an American singer who, with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, is considered one of the greatest vocalists in jazz music. Though without technical training or an outstanding vocal range, Holiday expressed a depth of private feeling and a distinctive phrasing that would influence later generations of jazz vocalists.

Discovered by the legendary Columbia Records producer John Hammond, Holiday spent much of the 1930s working with some of the most noted jazz musicians of the the era, including the Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and most importantly, the saxophonist Lester Young. Young and Holiday would collaborate in what many consider some of jazz music’s greatest recordings. Holiday recorded two of her best-known songs during this time: her own composition “God Bless the Child” (1939) and “Strange Fruit” (1939), a somber and racially charged composition about the lynching of blacks in the South. Her collaboration with white band leaders Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw was also groundbreaking recognition of black artistry in an era of strict racial segregation.

Holiday’s emotion-laden singing, influenced by the blues singer Bessie Smith and jazz singer and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, drew self-evidently from a life of emotional deprivation. Abandoned at birth by her father, she passed her youth in a succession of homes where she was abused, neglected, and possibly raped. Falling into prostitution while barely a teenager, she later became dependent on drugs and alcohol and was arrested several times on narcotics-related charges. She also gravitated toward glamorous, irresponsible, and abusive men, and themes of heartbreak and false love seared into her often-melancholy songs.

By the late 1940s, Holiday’s heroin addiction and alcoholism began to diminish her voice. Despite drug-related arrests that limited her professional career, she made a series of critically acclaimed late recordings. Holiday died in near poverty at 44, placed under arrest for heroin possession while on her deathbed.

While it is convenient to ascribe Holiday’s art to her tortured life and reckless living, her singing transcends and to a degree universalizes hardship, testifying not to an artistic imperative for loose living but to the resilience of the human spirit. Holiday’s art, while grounded in personal suffering, expresses empathy for the suffering without justifying self-inflicted harm through a life of irresponsible choices.

Life

Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, in Philadelphia, Billie Holiday had a difficult childhood which greatly affected her life and career. Much of her childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it propagated by her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (1956), which is known to contain many fallacies and inaccuracies.

Holiday grew up in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, Maryland. According to her autobiography, her house was the first on their street to have electricity. Her mother, Sadie Fagan, was allegedly only thirteen at the time of her birth (although this has been disputed); her father Clarence Holiday, a jazz guitarist who would play for the band leader Fletcher Henderson, was reportedly just fifteen. There is some controversy regarding Holiday’s paternity, but Clarence Holiday accepted paternity, yet was hardly a responsible father.

Raised primarily by her mother and a succession of relatives, the young girl changed her name to Billie, reportedly because she liked a movie star Billie Dove. Holiday dropped out of school in the fifth grade and cleaned floors and did other jobs in a nearby brothel, listening to the records of early jazz and blues artists. Particularly she was attracted to two of the most popular artists of the twenties, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, both of whom had a great influence on her.

When she was ten, Holiday was sexually assaulted and sent to a reform school for children. Scarred by these experiences, Holiday moved to Harlem in New York City to join her mother in 1928. According to her accounts, she was recruited by a brothel, worked as a prostitute, and even imprisoned for a short time. It was in Harlem that she started singing for tips in various night clubs in the early 1930s. According to legend, penniless and facing eviction, she sang “Body and Soul” in a local nightclub, reducing the audience to tears. She later worked at various clubs for tips, including Pod’s and Jerry’s, a well known Harlem jazz club. She was just twenty when the influential producer and talent scout John Hammond heard her fill in for a better-known performer and was astonished at the slow and emotionally suggestive quality she brought to jazz and pop standards.

Hammond managed to get Holiday recording sessions with Benny Goodman, booking her for live performances in various New York clubs. In 1935, her career got a big push when she recorded four sides that became hits, including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown To You.” This landed her a recording contract of her own, and from 1935 to 1942, she laid down masters that would ultimately become an important segment of early American jazz. Sometimes referred to as her “Columbia period” (after her recording label), these recordings represent a large portion of her total body of recording work.

During this period, the American music industry was still highly segregated, and many of the songs Holiday were given to record were intended for the black jukebox audience. She was often not considered for the “best” songs of the day, which were often reserved for white singers. However, Holiday’s style and fresh sound soon caught the attention of musicians across the nation, and her popularity began to climb. Peggy Lee, who began recording with Benny Goodman in the early 1940s, is often said to have emulated Holiday’s light, sensual style.

In 1936, she was working with Lester Young, who gave her the now-famous nickname of “Lady Day.” Holiday joined Count Basie in 1937 and Artie Shaw in 1938. She was one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra, an impressive accomplishment during that period.

The Commodore years and “Strange Fruit”

Holiday was working for Columbia in the late 1930s, when she was introduced to a song entitled “Strange Fruit,” which began as a poem about the lynching of a black man written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used the pseudonym “Lewis Allen” for the work. The poem was set to music and performed at teachers union meetings, where it was eventually heard by the manager of Cafe Society, an integrated nightclub in Greenwich Village, who introduced it to Holiday. Holiday performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939, a move that by her own admission left her fearful of retaliation. Holiday later said that the imagery in “Strange Fruit” reminded her of her father’s death, and that this played a role in her determination to perform it.

She approached Columbia about recording the song, but was refused due to the song’s subject matter. She arranged to record it with an alternate label, Commodore, Milt Gabler’s alternative jazz label in 1939. She would record two major sessions at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. Although there were far fewer songs recorded with Commodore, some of her biggest hits were under this label, including “Fine and Mellow,” “I Cover the Waterfront,” and “Embraceable You.” “Strange Fruit” was highly regarded and admired by intellectuals, and is in a large part responsible for her widespread popularity. “Strange Fruit’s” popularity also prompted Holiday to record the type of songs that would become her signature, namely slow, moving, love ballads.

It is widely conjectured that this is the period where Holiday first began what would become a long, and ultimately fatal, history of substance abuse. Holiday stated that she began using hard drugs in the early 1940s.

Her personal life was as turbulent as the songs she sang. She married trombonist Jimmy Monroe (a small-time drug dealer) on August 25, 1941. While still married to Monroe, she took up with trumpeter Joe Guy as his common law wife. She finally divorced Monroe in 1947, and also split with Guy. In 1947, she was jailed on drug charges and served eight months at the Alderson Federal Correctional Institution for Women in West Virginia. Her New York City Cabaret Card was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life.

Later life and work

By the 1950s, Holiday’s drug abuse, drinking, unfortunate taste in abusive men, and deteriorating health set her life on a slow and steady decline. While instantly recognizable, Holiday’s voice coarsened and did not project the bouncy, girlish vibrancy of first recordings in the mid-1930s. A certain bittersweet dignity added depth to her delivery. Many called her voice lovingly sweet, weathered and experienced, sad and sophisticated. As she aged, the effects of her drug abuse were evident. Her last major recording, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958, and revealed a woman with an extremely limited range, but wonderful phrasing and emotion. The recording featured a backing from a 40-piece orchestra conducted and arranged by Ray Ellis, who said of the album in 1997:

I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You.” There were tears in her eyes… After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.

On March 28, 1952, Holiday married Louis McKay, a Mafia “enforcer.” McKay, like most of the men in her life, was abusive, but did try to get her off drugs. They were separated at the time of her death. Holiday was also rather openly bisexual and was rumored to have had several affairs with notable stage and film actresses, including Tallulah Bankhead, as well as with film director Orson Welles.

Her late recordings on Verve Records are as well remembered as her Commodore and Decca work. From 1952 to 1959, Holiday released a little more than 100 new recordings for this label, which would constitute about a third of her recorded work. Her voice reflects a rugged timber on these tracks, reflecting a vulnerability in the once grand and bold diva. Her performance of “Fine and Mellow” on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz program is memorable for her interplay with her long-time friend Lester Young; both were less than two years from death.

Holiday toured Europe in 1954 and again from late 1958 to early 1959. While in London in February 1959, Holiday made a memorable televised appearance on the BBC’s Chelsea at Nine, singing, among other songs, “Strange Fruit.” Holiday made her final studio recordings (with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra, who had also recorded her Lady in Satin album the previous year) for the MGM label in March 1959 (included in her complete Verve recordings collection.) These final studio recordings were released posthumously on a self-titled album, later re-titled and re-released as Last Recordings. She made her final public appearance at a benefit concert at the Phoenix Theater in Greenwich Village, New York City on May 25, 1959. According to the masters of ceremony at that performance, Leonard Feather (a renowned jazz critic) and Steve Allen, she was only able to make it through two songs, one of which was Bessie Smith’s classic blues “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.”

On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York, suffering from liver and heart problems. On July 12, she was placed under house arrest at the hospital for possession, despite evidence suggesting the drugs may have been planted on her. Holiday remained under police guard at the hospital until she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959, at the age of 44. In the final years of her life she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only $0.70 in the bank and $750 on her person.

Billie Holiday is interred in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

Legacy

Some fifty years after her death, Billie Holiday is among the most recognizable singers of the jazz era. Jazz and pop vocalists of the time usually sang melodramatic ballads and novelty songs associated with the Tin Pan Alley tradition and rarely explored emotional depths. Holiday’s primary influences, the jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong and blues singer Bessie Smith were powerful exceptions whose lives mirrored Holiday’s, and whose vocal delivery left no doubt they had lived through what they were singing. In her autobiography Holiday admitted, “I always wanted Bessie’s big sound and Pops’ feeling.” Holiday’s personal and emotional delivery revolutionized the jazz vocal tradition by personalizing even the most banal material with a authentic and inimitable emotion.

Holiday’s unconventional aesthetic sensibility led her to refine beat and the melody, often reinventing the standard melody with harmonies borrowed from her favorite horn players, Armstrong and Lester Young. Holiday’s best performances remain among the most sensitive and original vocal performances ever recorded.

The artistic stature of Holiday muic only grew after her death. She influenced such singers as Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, and in 1972, Diana Ross played her in a movie version of Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. The film was a commercial success and earned an Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for Ross. In 1987, U2 released “Angel of Harlem” as a tribute to Billie.

Holiday struggled against racism her entire career and achieved fame despite a turbulent, often self-destructive life. She is also often cited as an example for her early efforts to stand up and speak out against discrimination and racism. She is now considered one of the most important vocal stylists of the twentieth century.

 

Master Juba


Master_Juba

Master Juba (ca. 1825 – ca. 1852 or 1853) was an African American dancer active in the 1840s. He was one of the first black performers in the United States to play onstage for white audiences and the only one of the era to tour with a white minstrel group. His real name was believed to be William Henry Lane, and he was also known as “Boz’s Juba” following Dickens’s graphic description of him in American Notes.

As a teenager, he began his career in the rough saloons and dance halls of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood, moving on to minstrel shows in the mid-1840s. “Master Juba” frequently challenged and defeated the best white dancers, including the period favorite, John Diamond. At the height of his American career, Juba’s act featured a sequence in which he imitated a series of famous dancers of the day and closed by performing in his own style.

In 1848 “Boz’s Juba” traveled to London with the Ethiopian Serenaders, an otherwise white minstrel troupe. Boz’s Juba became a sensation in Britain for his dance style. He was a critical favorite and the most written about performer of the 1848 season. Nevertheless, an element of exploitation followed him through the British Isles, with writers treating him as an exhibit on display. Records next place Juba in both Britain and America in the early 1850s. His American critics were less kind, and Juba faded from the limelight. He died in 1852 or 1853, likely from overwork and malnutrition. He was largely forgotten by historians until a 1947 article by Marian Hannah Winter resurrected his story.

Existing documents offer confused accounts of Juba’s dancing style, but certain themes emerge: it was percussive, varied in tempo, lightning-fast at times, expressive, and unlike anything seen before. The dance likely incorporated both European folk steps, such as the Irish jig, and African-derived steps used by plantation slaves, such as the walkaround. Prior to Juba’s career, the dance of blackface performance was more faithful to black culture than its other aspects, but as blackfaced clowns and minstrels adopted elements of his style, Juba further enhanced this authenticity. By having an effect upon blackface performance, Juba was highly influential on the development of such American dance styles as tap, jazz, and step dancing.

Early life and career

Little is known about Juba’s life. Scant details appear in primary sources, and secondary sources—most dating to years after his death—are of dubious validity. Dance historian Marian Hannah Winter proposed that Juba was born to free parents in 1825 or later. Showman Michael B. Leavitt wrote in 1912 that Juba came from Providence, Rhode Island, and theater historian T. Allston Brown gives his real name as William Henry Lane. According to an August 11, 1895, item in the New York Herald, Juba lived in New York’s Five Points District. This was a slum where Irish immigrants and free black people lived amidst brothels, dance houses, and saloons where black people regularly danced. The Irish and black populations intermingled and borrowed elements of folk culture from each other. One area of exchange was dance, and the Irish jig blended with black folk steps. In this environment, Juba learned to dance from his peers,including “Uncle” Jim Lowe, a black jig and reel dancer who performed in low-brow establishments. Juba was dancing for food and tossed coins by the early 1840s. Winter speculated that by about age 15, Juba had no family.

Primary sources show that Juba performed in dance competitions, minstrel shows, and variety theaters in the Northeastern United States beginning in the mid-1840s. The stage name Juba probably derives from the juba dance, itself named for the central or west African term giouba. “Jube” and “Juba” were common names for slaves in this period, especially those rumored to have dancing or musical talent. Documentation is confusing, as there were at least two black dancers using the name Juba at this time. For example, in 1840 a man named Lewis Davis was using the name “Master Juber” and making his living “travelling through the states, dancing negro extravaganzas, breakdowns, &c”. He was arrested for theft in New York City.

An anonymous letter from 1841 or early 1842 in the tabloid newspaper the Sunday Flash states that Juba was working for showman P. T. Barnum. The writer stated that Barnum had managed the dancer since 1840, when he had disguised the boy as a white minstrel performer—by making him up in blackface—and put him on at the New York Vauxhall Gardens. In 1841, the letter alleges, Barnum went so far as to present his charge as the Irish-American performer John Diamond, the most celebrated dancer of the day. The letter further accuses Barnum of entering Juba-as-Diamond in rigged dance competitions against other performers:

The boy is fifteen or sixteen years of age; his name is “Juba;” and to do him justice, he is a very fair dancer. He is of harmless and inoffensive disposition, and is not, I sincerely believe, aware of the meanness and audacity of the swindler to which he is presently a party. As to the wagers which the bills daily blazon forth, they are like the rest of his business—all a cheat. Not one dollar is ever bet or staked, and the pretended judges who aid in the farce, are mere blowers.

Writer Thomas Low Nichols supported parts of the story in an 1864 book of social history. He states that in 1841 Diamond quit his work as a dancer in the employ of Barnum and was replaced by “a genuine negro”, whom Barnum billed as “the champion nigger-dancer of the world”. The black dancer would have debuted in the spring of 1841. Nichols never identified the dancer as Juba, but later writers concluded that the boy was that performer. Historian Eric Lott has identified the irony of this arrangement: a black man imitating a white man imitating a black man.

Beginning in the early 1840s, Juba began a series of dance competitions known as challenge dances. He faced white rival John Diamond, who advertised that he “delineate[d] the Ethiopian character superior to any other white person”. Sources disagree about the date of their first contest; it may have occurred while Diamond was still working for Barnum or a year or two later. This advertisement from the July 8, 1844, New York Herald is typical of the publicity the matches generated:

GREAT PUBLIC CONTEST Between the two most renowned dancers in the world, the Original JOHN DIAMOND and the colored boy JUBA, for a Wager of $200, on MONDAY EVENING July 8 at the BOWERY AMPHITHEATRE, which building has been expressly hired from the Proprietor, Mr. Smith, for this night only, as its accommodations will afford all a fair view of each step of these wonderful Dancers. The fame of these two Celebrated Breakdown Dancers has already spread over the Union, and the numerous friends of each claim the Championship for their favorite, and who have anxiously wished for a Public Trial between them and thus known which is to bear the Title of the Champion Dancer of the World. The time to decide that has come, as the friends of Juba have challenged the world to produce his superior in the art for $100. That Challenge has been accepted by the friends of Diamond, and on Monday Evening they meet and Dance three Jigs, Two Reels, and the Camptown Hornpipe. Five Judges have been selected for their ability and knowledge of the Art, so that a fair decision will be made. Rule—Each Dancer will select his own Violin and the victory will be decided by the best time and the greatest number of steps.

Historian James W. Cook has suggested that Juba and Diamond may have staged their first competition as a form of mutual publicity. Claims of black superiority over an acclaimed white rival were otherwise unheard of in the climate of racial segregation and white supremacy that permeated New York City and the country at large in the mid-1840s.

Challenge dances usually employed three judges. One sat on the stage and counted time, another sat in or near the orchestra pit and judged style, and the third went under the stage and observed the dancer’s execution to listen for “missing taps, defective rolls and heel work, the lagging in the breaks”. After the dance, they compared notes and chose the winner. Audience members and friends of the competitors bet on the outcome and could name the victor by popular acclaim in the case the judges could not come to a decision. According to an undated reference by Leavitt, Juba lost one challenge, at the Boylston Gardens in Boston, but records show that he beat Diamond in all other competitions. An undated clipping from the Harvard Theatre Collection, written by a fan of minstrelsy, describes the single dance competition that Diamond managed to win: “One of the fiddlers played a reel for him [Juba], and he shuffled, and twisted, and walked around, and danced on for one hour and fifteen minutes by the watch.” Then Juba made a loud strike with his left foot as the crowd cheered and he got a drink from the bar. Diamond was next and tried to act cool but resolute. He knew that he would displease Barnum by losing and he had his race at stake: “There was another thing about this match-dance that made Diamond want to win. You see it was not only a case of Barnum’s Museum against Pete Williams’s dance-house, but it was a case of white against black. So Jack Diamond went at his dancin’ with double energy—first, for his place, next, for his color.” He beat Juba’s time and “gave a hop, skip and a jump, a yell and a bow”. A black man shouted out, “He’s a white man, sure … but he’s got a nigger in his heel.” The two had their most famous matchup in New York City in 1844, where Juba beat Diamond for $500. Juba then traveled to Boston, billing himself as the “King of All the Dancers”, and played for two weeks, with competitions versus Frank Diamond (no relation to John).

In 1842, English writer Charles Dickens toured New York’s Five Points. This was around the time of the challenge dances, and Dickens was possibly drawn by rumors of Barnum’s disguising of a black youth as a white minstrel performer. There the writer witnessed a performance by “a lively young negro” at the Almack’s tavern and brothel at 67 Orange Street in the infamous Mulberry Bend. The November 11, 1842, edition of the New York Herald later identified this dancer as Juba. Dickens wrote in his American Notes,

The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding of the small raised orchestra in which they sit, and play a lively measure. Five or six couples come upon the floor, marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known. He never leaves off making queer faces, and is the delight of all the rest, who grin from ear to ear incessantly …

… But the dance commences. Every gentleman sets as long as he likes to the opposite lady, and the opposite lady to him, and all are so long about it that the sport begins to languish, when suddenly the lively hero dashes in to the rescue. Instantly the fiddler grins, and goes at it tooth and nail; there is new energy in the tambourine; new laughter in the dancers; new smiles in the landlady; new confidence in the landlord; new brightness in the very candles.

Single shuffle, double shuffle, cut and cross-cut; snapping his fingers, rolling his eyes, turning in his knees, presenting the backs of his legs in front, spinning about on his toes and heels like nothing but the man’s fingers on the tambourine; dancing with two left legs, two right legs, two wooden legs, two wire legs, two spring legs—all sorts of legs and no legs—what is this to him? And in what walk of life, or dance of life, does man ever get such stimulating applause as thunders about him, when, having danced his partner off her feet, and himself too, he finishes by leaping gloriously on the bar-counter, and calling for something to drink, with the chuckle of a million of counterfeit Jim Crows, in one inimitable sound!

Juba may have capitalized on the free publicity given him by Dickens as he made the jump from the saloon to the stage. An undated excerpt from the New York Herald describes Juba’s appearance with a minstrel troupe at Pete Williams’ dance hall on Orange Street:

… [T]hose who passed through the long hallway and entered the dance hall, after paying their shilling to the darky doorkeeper, whose “box-office” was a plain soap box, or a wooden one of that description, saw this phenomenon, “Juba,” imitate all the dancers of the day and their special steps. Then Bob Ellingham, the interlocutor and master of ceremonies, would say, “Now, Master Juba, show your own jig.” Whereupon he would go through all his own steps and specialties, with never a resemblance in any of them to those he had just imitated.

In this performance, Juba imitated the white minstrel performers Richard Pelham, Frank Brower, John Daniels, John Smith, James Sanford, Frank Diamond, and John Diamond. The idea that Juba could “imitate himself” after mimicking his rivals points up, according to Lott, “minstrelsy’s fundamental consequence for black culture, the dispossession and control by whites of black forms that would not for a long time be recovered”. Nevertheless, Juba’s imitations of his white rivals asserted his greater mastery of the styles then current in blackface dance. They also asserted that this was an artistic medium worthy of imitation. James W. Cook writes, “in a sense, the Imitation Dance served as a powerful act of defiance from someone who, more typically, would have lacked any means of broader representational control”.

Dancers came to recognize Juba as the best and his fame soared. By 1845, he was so well known that he no longer had to impersonate a white minstrel on stage. He toured through New England with the Georgia Champion Minstrels in 1844. The bill called him “The Wonder of the World Juba, Acknowledged to be the Greatest Dancer in the World. Having danced with John Diamond at the Chatham Theatre for $500, and at the Bowery Theatre for the same amount, and established himself as the King of All Dancers. No conception can be formed of the variety of beautiful and intricate steps exhibited by him with ease. You must see to believe.”

In 1845, Juba began touring with the Ethiopian Minstrels. The troupe gave him top billing over its four white members, unprecedented for a black performer. From 1846, Juba toured with White’s Serenaders, under the tutelage of Charles “Charlie” White, as a dancer and tambourine player off and on until at least 1850. He played a character named Ikey Vanjacklen, “the barber’s boy” in a piece called “Going for the Cup, or, Old Mrs. Williams’s Dance”, one of the earliest known minstrel sketches. It focused on Juba’s dancing in a milieu of competition and showing off. The plot follows two characters trying to fix a dance contest by soaping the floor in a way that will make all of the competitors fall except Ikey. They bet on Vanjacklen, but in the end, the judge steals the money.

European tour

In 1848, a dancer billed as “Boz’s Juba” performed in London, England. He was a member of the Ethiopian Serenaders, a blackface minstrel troupe under the leadership of Gilbert W. Pell (or Pelham). The company had performed in England two years prior, when they had made minstrelsy palatable to middle-class British audiences by adopting refinements such as formal wear. With Boz’s Juba as its newest member, the company toured middle-class theaters and lecture halls in the British Isles for the next 18 months.

The identity of Boz’s Juba is open to doubt. “Boz” was a pen name used by Dickens. The Ethiopian Serenaders quoted from Dickens’s American Notes in their press releases, and The Illustrated London News considered the black dancer to be the same person Dickens had seen in New York in 1842. Dickens never refuted the claims. Nevertheless, the Serenaders’ assertions were promotional, and Dickens may not have remembered the exact look or characteristics of the dancer he had seen in the Five Points. Writers from the period and later have generally identified Boz’s Juba as the same person Dickens had seen during his visit to New York and who had danced against Diamond.

Boz’s Juba seems to have been a full member of Pell’s troupe. He wore blackface makeup and played the endman, Mr. Tambo (a tambourine player) opposite Pell’s Mr. Bones (on the bone castanets). He sang standard minstrel songs, such as “Juliana Johnson]” and “Come Back, Steben”, and he performed in sketches and “conundrum” contests. Despite this apparent level of integration into the act, advertisements for the troupe set Juba’s name apart from the other members. The Serenaders continued through Britain and played establishments such as the Vauxhall Gardens. The tour ended in 1850. Its run of 18 months was the longest uninterrupted minstrel tour in Britain at that time. Juba and Pell then joined the troupe headed by Pell’s brother, Richard Pelham. The company was renamed G. W. Pell’s Serenaders.

Juba was the most written about performer in London for the summer 1848 season, no easy feat considering the large number of competitors. He proved a critical favorite, with commentators doting on him praise normally accorded to popular ballet dancers. That August, the Theatrical Times wrote, “The performances of this young man are far above the common performances of the mountebanks who give imitations of American and Negro character; there is an ideality in what he does that makes his efforts at once grotesque and poetical, without losing sight of the reality of representation.” An anonymous clipping from the 1848 season says,

[T]he dancing of Juba exceeded anything ever witnessed in Europe … The American Juba has for some years drawn immense audiences whenever he has appeared. He is quite young, being only in his seventeenth year. Mr. Dickens, in his ‘American Notes,’ gives a graphic description of this extraordinary youth, who, we doubt not, before many weeks have elapsed, will have the honor of displaying his dancing attainments in Buckingham Palace.

One reviewer wrote, “Juba is a musician, as well as a dancer. To him, the intricate management of the nigger tambourine is confined, and from it he produces marvelous harmonies. We almost question whether, upon a great emergency, he could not play a fugue upon it”. His only known negative review during his British tour came from The Puppet-Show on August 12, 1848:

The principal feature in entertainments at Vauxhall is Juba: as such at least he is put forth—or rather put first—by the proprietors. Out of compliment to Dickens, this extraordinary nigger is called ‘Boz’s Juba,’ in consequence, we believe, of the popular writer having said a good word for him in his American Notes: on this principle we could not mention the Industrious Fleas as being clever without having those talented little animals puffed all over London as being under the overwhelming patronage of the Showman. Juba’s talent consists in walking round the stage with an air of satisfaction and with his toes turned in; in jumping backwards in a less graceful manner than we should have conceived possible; and in shaking his thighs like a man afflicted with palsy. He makes a terrible clatter with his feet, not owing so much to activity on his part as to stupidity on the part of his boot-maker, who has furnished him with a pair of clumsy Wellingtons sufficiently large for the feet and legs of all the Ethiopians in London: besides this, he sometimes moves about the stage on his knees, as if he was praying to be endowed with intelligence, and had unlimited credit with his tailor. As a last resource, he falls back on the floor …

The piece goes on to describe a drunken man the critic met after Juba’s performance:

When again we saw him he was labouring (like a horse—or, rather, an ass) under the influence of champagne. We understood that he was imitating Juba, and he behaved so ridiculously that he may actually be said to have surpassed him.

Master Juba’s stint with Pell makes him the earliest known black performer to tour with a white minstrel troupe. Scholars disagree over why he was allowed to do so. Dance historian Marian Hannah Winter argues that Juba was simply too talented to be held back. Dance historian Stephen Johnson sees Juba’s talent as less central to the matter, and emphasizes the element of exoticism and exhibition in the tour. During the same period, exhibits of Arab families, Bushmen, Kaffir Zulus, and Ojibway warriors appeared in London. A reviewer for the Manchester Guardian gave an almost anthropological description of Juba, unheard of for other performers:

But the great feature of the entertainment, and that which we imagine attracted the large and respectable audience present, was undoubtedly “Master Juba,” the immortalized of Boz. This “phenomenon” (as the bills describe him) is a copper-coloured votary of Terpsichore,—the Monsieur Perrot of Negro life in the southern states; and possesses the additional attraction of being a “real nigger,” and not a “sham,” like his vocal associates. He is apparently about eighteen years of age; about 5 feet 3 inches in height; of slender make, yet possessing great muscular activity. His head is very small, and his countenance, when at rest, has a rather mild, sedate, and far from unpleasing expression.

Pell’s advertising repeatedly alleged that Juba’s dance was authentic, and the reviewers seem to have believed him. The same Manchester critic remarked that Juba’s dances “illustrated the dances of his own simple people on festive occasions”.The few reviews of Juba as a solo performer after his tour with Pell (and thus out of the exhibitionist mode) are more negative. Dance scholar Thomas DeFrantz has said that Master Juba’s stage persona “buffered associations between the potent black body onstage and the preferred impotent everyday, male slave body”. Scholar of African American studies Maurice O. Wallace adds that Juba was an example of how “those strategies of black cultural performance … have historically coalesced to shape black masculine subjecthood in Eurocentric contexts”. However, Wallace cautions that by the time Juba had reached London, he had “[transcended] the racial gaze” and was seen as a dancer first and black man second.

Later life and career

Documents next show Juba back in the United States, performing a solo act in working-class music halls, concert saloons, and entr’actes in nondescript theaters in New York: he had gone from obscurity to the limelight and back again. The American critics were not as kind as their English counterparts. A reviewer for the Era wrote on August 4, 1850, that “[Juba is] jumping very fast at the Colosseum, but too fast is worse than too slow, and we advise [Juba] to be wise in time. It is easier to jump down than to jump up”; and on August 11, 1850, “Juba has jumped away—by the way of an earnest yet friendly caution, let us hope that he will not throw himself away. Be wise in time is a wholesome motto”. The Huddersfield Chronicle and West Yorkshire Advertiser on November 30, 1850, wrote, “The performances of Boz’s Juba have created quite a sensation in the gallery, who greeted his marvellous feats of dancing with thunders of applause and a standing encore. In all the rougher and less refined departments of his art, Juba is a perfect master.”

The last known record of Juba places him at the City Tavern in Dublin, Ireland, in September 1851: “Boz’s Juba appears here nightly and is well received”. A performer known as Jumbo is reported as having died two weeks later in Dublin. Dance historian Marian Hannah Winter said that Juba died in 1852 in London. More than 30 years later, theater historian T. Allston Brown wrote that Juba “married too late (and a white woman besides), and died early and miserably. In a note addressed to Charley White, Juba informed him that, when next he should be seen by him [White], he would be riding in his own carriage. It has been said that in 1852 his skeleton, without the carriage, was on exhibition at the Surrey Music Hall, Sheffield, England.” Mahar has given the date as 1853. He would have been in his late 20s.

The cause of Juba’s death is a matter of speculation. Winter cited his “almost superhuman schedule” and the “[burning] up his energies and health” as the culprits. Assuming all of the Jubas are the same person, the record suggests that Juba worked day and night for 11 years—from 1839 to 1850. Especially in his early days, Juba worked for food, and would have been served the typical tavern meal of the time, fried eels and ale. Such a demanding schedule, coupled with poor food and little sleep, likely doomed Juba to his early death.

Performance style

Playbills tell us, broadly, what Juba did during his performances. No known description of Juba’s dancing by a contemporary was written by anyone of his own race, class, or profession. While he was clearly a remarkable dancer, it is impossible to gain precise knowledge of his style and technique, or of the degree to which he differed from his largely forgotten black contemporaries. The sources lack precise points of comparison. The more detailed accounts come from British critics, to whom Juba must have been more of a novelty than to Americans. These writers were catering to a white, middle class, British audience. Other descriptions come from promotional material and thus cannot be trusted to be objective. Juba was described as a “jig dancer” at a time when the word still connoted Irish folk dancing but was in the process of changing to encompass black dance. The Irish jig was common at this time, so skillful improvisation may account for the inordinate amount of attention Juba received.

These accounts offer only ambiguous choreographic descriptions. While these descriptions often offer exacting detail, they contradict one another. Some attempt an almost scientific precision, while others emphasize the impossibility of Juba’s style. The reviews do agree that Juba’s dance was novel to the point of indescribability, frenzied, varied in tempo and tone, well-timed, percussive, and expressive.

He was an integral member of the troupes with which he toured, as evidenced by the roles he played in the minstrel show presented by Pell’s Ethiopian Serenaders. Juba did three dances in two forms. He performed “festival” and “plantation” dances in formal attire with Thomas F. Briggs on banjo, and dressed in drag to perform the role of Lucy Long in the song of that name, sung by Pell.There is little evidence to indicate whether Juba portrayed the wench role in sexual or burlesque style. However, a review from Manchester, England, implies that it was the former:

With a most bewitching bonnet and veil, a very pink dress, beflounced to the waist, lace-fringed trousers of the most spotless purity, and red leather boots,—the ensemble completed by the green parasol and white cambric pocket handkerchief,—Master Juba certainly looked the black demoiselle of the first ton to the greatest advantage. The playing and singing by the serenaders of a version of the well-known negro ditty, furnished the music to Juba’s performance, which was after this fashion:-Promenading in a circle to the left for a few bars, till again facing the audience, he then commenced a series of steps, which altogether baffle description, from their number, oddity, and the rapidity with which they were executed … The promenade was then repeated; then more dancing; and so on, to the end of the song.

Existing images of Juba offer more hints. Two depictions, from a review of Juba at the Vauxhall Gardens, published in The Puppet-Show on August 12, 1848, show a drunken man imitating Juba’s performance; he seems to be doing a cake-walk, his leg kicked high, his hat in his extended arm. A caricature of Juba shows him with knees bent and legs spread, one leg poised to land hard on the floor; arms in close. The most common image of Juba, originally from June 18, 1848, edition of The Era, shows him in a position similar to this one; his hands rest in his pockets. One British account, in an issue of The Illustrated London News from August 5, 1848, is accompanied by an illustration that shows Juba performing what seems to be a jig.

Indescribability

Writers struggled to find words to describe what they saw Juba do. A Brighton reviewer wrote that “[t]he effort baffles description. It is certainly original, and unlike anything we have ever seen before”. Another wrote of “a series of steps, which altogether baffle description, from their number, oddity, and the rapidity with which they were executed”. Writers struggled to compare Juba’s steps to forms familiar to British audiences. Inevitably, the comparisons were to rural folk dances or to those of the exotic reaches of the British Empire:

The dances he introduced were distinguished for eccentricity, rapidity of motion, and the accuracy of the time kept. They approximated, in some respects, to those wild dances that may be witnessed sometimes in the remoter parts of the Highlands, including the sword dance, as there known; besides having the same idea of clanking the heels, as pervades the Polka. But it is not the office of the legs alone to do all this; the head, arms, and body generally take full share of duty, and assume such extraordinary positions, that only a being possessed of the power of Proteus could calculate upon taking.

Nevertheless, such comparisons cannot be taken as true indications of Juba’s personal style. As a blackface minstrel, and thus parodist, Juba may have incorporated conscious parodies of such dances into his act. He also made facial expressions as he danced. Charles Dickens wrote of the young black dancer in New York that “[h]e never leaves off making queer faces”.

Eccentricity

Juba seems to have presented varied styles at different tempos during a single performance. Confused reviewers struggled to explain how he moved each part of his body independently at its own speed and how he repeatedly changed his rhythm and tone. A critic for The Morning Post wrote, “Now he languishes, now burns, now love seems to sway his motions, and anon rage seems to impel his steps.” A London audience member who saw Juba at the Vauxhall Gardens wondered, “How could he tie his legs into such knots, and fling them about so recklessly, or make his feet twinkle until you lose sight of them altogether in his energy.” The Mirror and United Kingdom Magazine declared, “Such mobility of muscles, such flexibility of joints, such boundings, such slidings, such gyrations, such toes and such heelings, such backwardings and forwardings, such posturings, such firmness of foot, such elasticity of tendon, such mutation of movement, such vigour, such variety, such natural grace, such powers of endurance, such potency of pastern.” The Manchester Examiner captured something of the rhythm of Juba’s performance:

Surely he cannot be flesh and blood, but some more subtle substance, or how could he turn, and twine, and twist, and twirl, and hop, and jump, and kick, and throw his feet almost with a velocity that makes one think they are playing hide-and seek with a flash of lightning! Heels or toes, on feet or on knees, on the ground or off, it is all the same to Juba; his limbs move as if they were stuffed with electric wires …

Percussion

The percussive sounds Juba made during his performances were another element that distinguished his dance from standard Irish jigs. Contemporary reviewers often alluded to these sounds. Playbills asked audiences to remain silent during Juba’s dances so they could hear the percussion of his steps. The Manchester Guardian remarked, “To us, the most interesting part of the performance was the exact time, which, even in the most complicated and difficult steps, the dancer kept to the music.” An anonymous clipping from c. 1848 said, “… the dancing of Juba exceeded anything ever witnessed in Europe. The style as well as the execution is unlike anything ever seen in this country. The manner in which he beats time with his feet, and the extraordinary command he possesses over them, can only be believed by those who have been present at his exhibition.” A critic in Liverpool compared his steps to Pell on the bones and Briggs on the banjo. The Morning Post wrote, “He trills, he shakes, he screams, he laughs, as though by the very genius of African melody.” Descriptions also show elements of the hand jive in his dance.

Juba accompanied his dances with rapid-fire laughter synchronized to the tempo of the dance. An anonymous London critic wrote,

[T]here never was such a laugh as the laugh of Juba—there is in it the concentrated laugh of fifty comic pantomimes; it has no relation to the chuckle, and, least of all to the famous horse laugh; not a bit of it—it is a laugh distinct, a laugh apart, a laugh by itself—clear, ringing, echoing, resonant, harmonious, full of rejoicing and mighty mirth, and fervent fun; you may hear it like the continuous humming sound of nature, permeating everywhere; it enters your heart and you laugh sympathetically—it creeps into your ear, and clings to it, and all the subsequent sounds seemed to be endued with the cachinatory quality … “Well, though the laugh of Juba be wondrous, what may be said of Juba’s dancing?”

Authenticity

Juba’s dance certainly incorporated elements of authentic black culture, but to what extent is uncertain. Elements of Juba’s style are part of the black dance aesthetic: percussion, variable time signature, use of the body as an instrument, changes in tone and pacing, extreme gestures and poses, and emphasis on solo dancing. Juba may very well have exuded Africa’s cool aesthetic: composure and vitality.

Historians have ascribed the inability of British critics to describe Juba’s style to his use of African-derived forms unfamiliar to the British middle class. White accounts of his performances reflect similar descriptions of slave dances from the Caribbean and the United States. Juba was heir to the traditions of free northern black people, and Johnson has pointed to evidence that he was performing “a quite specific, African-infused plantation dance”. Descriptions of his dance hint that Juba performed black steps such as the walk-around, the pigeon wing, a primordial Charleston, the long-bow J, trucking, the turkey trot, the backward spring, the wailing jawbone, and tracking upon the heel. However, Johnson cautions that “I might see any number of dance steps here, if I look longingly enough.”

Juba was in a white-dominated field playing for largely white audiences; he likely compromised his culture’s music and dance in order to survive in show business. This was true of his comedy sketches and songs, which did not stray from standard minstrel fare. One London observer in the 1840s who witnessed slave dances on a South Carolina plantation called them “poor shufflings compared to the pedal inspirations of Juba”. Juba’s dance may have been an amalgamation of African and European precedents. Dickens’s piece on the New York dancer, describing leg movements only, points to the Irish jig, but he also refers to Juba performing the single and double shuffle, which are black-derived steps. Historians Shane and Graham White have argued that black people of this period performed European steps in a different style from whites. Historian Robert Toll has written that Juba “had learned a European dance, blended it with African tradition, and produced a new form, an Afro-American dance that had a great impact on minstrelsy”. Dance historians Marshall and Jean Stearns have agreed, saying that “in the person of William Henry Lane, the blend of British folk with American Negro dance in the United States had, by 1848, resulted in a striking new development. So foreign observers, who were in a position to view its emergence objectively, treated it as an original creation.”

Legacy and historiography

The terms juba dancer and juba dancing became common in variety theaters after Master Juba popularized them. Actors, minstrels, and British clowns inspired by Juba and other minstrels adopted blackface and performed dances similar to Juba’s as a stage character called the “Gay Negro Boy”. The character spread to France (from 1860) and Belgium (from 1865) when British circuses toured there. Elements of these dances were still found among British whiteface clowns as late as the 1940s. Juba’s rave reception in Manchester may have presaged that city’s later status as the center of dance in the United Kingdom. Less happily, Juba reinforced the racist caricature of the naturally musical black among white audiences.

While the name Juba passed into dance history, for many decades the man himself did not. For over 90 years after his death, Juba was largely forgotten by dancers and historians, appearing only in brief, racist passages in sources such as histories of minstrelsy. Stephen Johnson has postulated that this indicates that either white entertainers and historians consciously downplayed Juba’s significance, or that Juba was simply not that influential. Even black historians ignored Juba until the mid-20th century, preferring to focus on Juba’s older and more obviously respectable contemporary Ira Aldridge, an African American actor who became a leading light of the European stage.

In 1947, dance and popular culture historian Marian Hannah Winter began the resurrection of Juba’s reputation with her article “Juba and American Minstrelsy”. Juba, according to Winter, surmounted the hurdles of race and class to succeed as a professional dancer. Winter was the first to write of Juba as a man who introduced elements of African dance to the Western lexicon and thus fostered the creation of a distinct American dance idiom. In so doing, Juba, according to Winter, reclaimed for African Americans elements that had been stolen in the racist culture of 19th-century America and, in the process, invented tap dancing. In short, Winter “made [Juba] significant”.

When Winter wrote her article, there was little scholarship in African American studies, dance history, or minstrelsy studies. Winter based her article on, at most, six sources. Nonetheless, later writers have largely accepted and echoed her thesis. As recently as 1997, musicologist Dale Cockrell wrote that “[t]he best treatment of Juba, though it is shot through with errors, is still Winter 1948″. Winter’s view that Juba was the “most influential single performer of nineteenth-century American dance” is now the consensus. His career shows that black and white people actually did collaborate to an extent in blackface minstrelsy.

Scholars in recent decades have repeatedly pointed to Juba as the progenitor of tap dancing and, by extension, step dancing. Winter wrote that “[t]he repertoire of any current tap-dancer contains elements which were established theatrically by him”. Dancer Mark Knowles has echoed this assertion, calling Juba “America’s first real tap dancer”. Music historian Eileen Southern calls him the “principal black professional minstrel of the antebellum period (and) a link between the white world and authentic black source material”. Scholars point to Juba as the first African American to insert aspects of authentic black culture into American dance and theater. In so doing, Juba ensured that blackface dance was more authentically African than the other elements of the minstrel show. Wallace has gone so far as to call Juba “the pater alios of black masculine dance history, and the ‘initiator and determinant of the form itself,’ a form which lends visible expression to the difficult dialectics of black masculinity”. Johnson, however, has cautioned against this interpretation. His reading of the primary sources sees more evidence of eccentricity in Juba’s dance than of a proto-tap or -jazz.

 

The Drifters


The_Drifters

The Drifters are a long-lived American doo wop/R&B band, who helped create soul music with gospel-style vocals. The Drifters began in 1953 at the instigation of record producer Ahmet Ertegun and singer Clyde McPhatter. The early Drifters had several R & B hits. McPhatter left the group in 1954 when he was drafted and a number of contentious personnel changes soon followed.

Later, with Ben E. King’s yearning sound on lead tenor, the group had several successive hits, including “There Goes My Baby” (#1, 1959); “This Magic Moment” (#4, 1960); “I Count the Tears” (#17, 1960); and “Save the Last Dance for Me” (#1, 1960). After King pursued a solo career, Rudy Lewis took on the lead vocals. The Drifters enjoyed continued popularity through 1964 with major pop and R & B hits, including “Up On the Roof,” “On Broadway,” and “Under the Boardwalk.”

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Due to disputes over the rights to the name, today there are several groups who perform under the name, “The Drifters.”

History

The original Drifters

In May 1953, Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records approached Clyde McPhatter after he left the Dominoes and signed him to the fledgling R & B and jazz label to form a new group. McPhatter first recruited several members of his earlier group, the Mount Lebanon Singers, but later settled on Gerhart and Andrew Thrasher on baritone and second tenor, respectively, Bill Pinkney on high tenor, Willie Ferbee as bass, and Walter Adams on guitar. This is the group which produced the group’s first hit: “Money Honey.” The Drifters had several additional successes before McPhatter was drafted in May 1954, after which he pursued a solo career. He sold his share of the group to George Treadwell a former jazz trumpeter and husband of legendary singer Sarah Vaughan, who served as the group’s manager.

McPhatter was first replaced by David Baughn, who had been on the group’s first recording session. While his voice was similar to McPhatter’s, his erratic behavior made him unsuitable in the eyes of Atlantic Records’ executives. Baughn soon left the group and was replaced by Cleveland native Johnny Moore (of The Hornets). This line-up had a major R & B hit in 1955 with “Adorable,” followed by several others (“Ruby Baby,” “I Got To Get Myself A Woman,” and “Fools Fall In Love”).

In the mid 1950s, The Drifters began working with legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who eventually became the group’s producers as well. Their 1956 hit “I Gotta Get Myself a Woman” marked the beginning of what many consider the group’s golden age. However, low salaries and other disputes plagued The Drifters.

Johnny Moore was drafted in November 1957 and replaced by Bobby Hendricks, who had briefly been with The Swallows. However, the group was still not able to break into mainstream markets.

The New Drifters

Manager George Treadwell eventually fired the entire Drifters’ singing personnel and hired most of the group previously known as The Five Crowns, including lead singer Ben E. King, promoting them under the name of The Drifters. This is the group whose sound is now generally associated with the name.

This new line-up released several singles which became major chart hits. “There Goes My Baby,” was the first commercial rock-and-roll recording to include a string orchestra. “This Magic Moment,” “Save The Last Dance For Me,” and “I Count The Tears” soon followed.

However, personnel changes started almost immediately. Lover Patterson, who had managed the Five Crowns and was now the Drifters’ road manager, did not get along with Treadwell. Since Patterson had Ben E. King under personal contract, he refused to let King tour with the group. New member Johnny Lee Williams thus did the touring. However, King continued to record with The Drifters for about a year before beginning a successful solo career. His voice was so associated with the group by this time that Ben E. King’s solo hits, such as “Stand By Me” and “Rose in Spanish Harlem,” are often thought to be songs by The Drifters.

Williams was subsequently replaced by Rudy Lewis of The Clara Ward Singers gospel group. It is Lewis who took the lead on such hits as “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” “Please Stay,” and “Up On The Roof.”

Johnny Moore returned in 1964, after his military service and a failed solo career, making the group a quintet consisting of Moore, Charlie Thomas, Rudy Lewis, Gene Pearson, and Johnny Terry. Lewis died the night before before the group was scheduled to record “Under the Boardwalk,” and Johnny Moore took over as the lead singer on that session, which produced the group’s last major hit.

By March 1970, following a number of additional line-up changes, The Drifters had broken up. In January 1971 Johnny Moore produced a session which was subsequently sold to Atlantic, resulting in “A Rose By Any Other Name” and “Be My Lady,” the Drifters’ last Atlantic releases.

Post-Atlantic career

The Drifters eventually reappeared in England and underwent many additional bewildering personnel changes. Throughout the 1970s, the only charted records for the group were disco songs on the British charts. In 1999 the group’s longest serving member, Johnny Moore, died. In December 2006, writs were served in the London High Court by Tina Treadwell, daughter of George, over the rightful control of The Drifters’ name and products.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Both “The Original Drifters” (1998) and “Ben E. King and The Drifters” (2000) were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked The Drifters #81 on their list of The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

 

Gladys Knight & the Pips


Gladys-Knight-and-the-Pips

Gladys Knight & the Pips were an R&B/soul musical act from Atlanta, Georgia, active from 1953 to 1989. The group was best known for its string of hit singles from 1967 to 1975, including “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (1967) and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973). The longest-lived incarnation of the act featured Gladys Knight on lead vocals, with her brother Merald “Bubba” Knight on backing vocals, together with their cousins Edward Patten and William Guest.

The group first recorded at Motown and later on the Buddah label. It disbanded after its final performing tour in 1988, as Knight decided she wanted to pursue a solo career.

In 1973, “Midnight Train to Georgia” won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. Later, the song received the Grammy Hall Of Fame Award, recognizing it as a recording of lasting qualitative or historical significance. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1998, and entered the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001.

History

Forming the Pips

Gladys Knight’s career took off when she was just seven years old, when she won Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour television show contest in 1952. The following year, she, her brother Bubba, sister Brenda, and their cousins William and Eleanor Guest started “The Pips” (named after another cousin, James “Pip” Woods). The Pips began to perform and tour, eventually replacing Brenda Knight and Eleanor Guest with cousins Langston George and Edward Patten in 1959.

The Pips scored their first hit in 1961, with “Every Beat of My Heart,” a cover of a Hank Ballard & The Midnighters song, for Vee-Jay records. The song became a number-one R&B and number-six pop hit. Shortly afterward, Langston George left the group, and the remaining members continued as a quartet, now billed as Gladys Knight & the Pips. Typically, most of the act’s recordings featured Knight’s contralto on lead vocals and the three male members of the group providing characteristic background vocals.

After a second Vee-Jay hit, “Letter Full of Tears,” in 1962, Knight quit the group to start a family. The Pips toured on their own for two years, until Knight returned to the act in 1964 in order to support her two children. That year the group had another modest hit with “Giving Up.”

Gladys Knight & the Pips developed a reputation for exciting and polished live performances that enabled them to work steadily even without the benefit of best-selling records. Choreographer Cholly Atkins designed “fast-stepping” dance routines that became a signature of the Pips’ stage presentation.

Knight & the Pips join Motown

Knight and the Pips largest success came after they signed with Motown in 1966. Their top-40 hit “Everybody Needs Love,” was followed by the breakthrough success of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which became a number-two pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and a number-one R&B hit for six weeks. The record sold 2.5 million copies, and at the time was Motown’s best-selling single ever. In late 1968, “Grapevine” would become an even bigger hit for Marvin Gaye, whose version, recorded before Knight’s but released a year afterward, became a number-one pop hit for seven weeks.

Further hits for the group included “The Nitty Gritty” (1968), “Friendship Train” (1969), the number-one R&B “If I Were Your Woman,” and “I Don’t Want To Do Wrong” (1971). The group’s biggest Motown hit was 1972’s number-one R&B/number-two pop hit “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye),” which won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group, or Chorus.

Knight and the Pips departed Motown for Buddah Records in 1973. Knight later complained that she and the Pips were regarded as a second-string act, and that Diana [Ross] & the Supremes, The Temptations, and Marvin Gaye were given the best songs, while “we took the leftovers.” In Knight’s autobiography she alleged that Diana Ross had the group removed from being The Supremes’ opening act on a 1966 tour for being too good.

With Buddah Records

Recording for Buddah in the mid 1970s, the group hit its popular and critical peak with number-one R&B hits such as “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination,” and “Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.” Their most notable success was their only number-one pop hit, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” which won the Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals of 1973. The song eventually received the Grammy Hall Of Fame Award, which was established by the Recording Academy’s National Trustees to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance. Many of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ hits in the mid-1970s were written by country songwriter Jim Weatherly. The group charted with five of Weatherly’s songs in 1973 and 1974: “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Neither One of Us,” “Where Peaceful Waters Flow,” “The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” and “Between Her Goodbye and My Hello.”

Gladys Knight & the Pips’ debut LP on Buddah, Imagination, was certified as a gold record. This began a string of LPs that were awarded gold status: Claudine (1974), I Feel a Song (1974), and 2nd Anniversary (1975). Other hit singles for Buddah included “Part-Time Love,” the R&B number one “I Feel a Song (In My Heart),” “Love Finds Its Own Way,” and “The Way We Were/Try to Remember.”

Curtis Mayfield served as their producer in 1974 when Knight and the Pips recorded the soundtrack to the motion picture Claudine, resulting in a number-five hit with the film’s theme song, “On and On.” The following year, the group hosted its own hour-long musical variety television program, The Gladys Knight & the Pips Show, which ran for four episodes on NBC as a summer-season replacement.

Later years

Knight and the Pips continued to have R&B hits until the late 1980s. From 1978 to 1980, the Pips and Gladys recorded as separate acts due to legal problems with Buddah. During this time, Knight released two solo albums and the Pips released two albums of their own.

In 1980, the Pips signed to Columbia Records, for which Knight had recorded her second solo album. Teaming up with songwriting husband/wife duo Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, the reunited Gladys Knight & The Pips released the album About Love in 1980, which featured “Landlord” and “Taste Of Bitter Love.” Ashford & Simpson continued with Knight and the Pips for the 1981 follow-up, Touch, featuring “I Will Fight” and a cover of “I Will Survive.” Also in 1981, the group provided prominent backing vocals for Kenny Rogers on his remake of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Share Your Love With Me.”

After an international tour, Knight and the Pips recorded the LP Visions (1983), which resulted in a number-one R&B hit with “Save the Overtime (For Me)” and was certified gold. In 1987, the group released its final album, All Our Love, on MCA Records which was also certified gold. The album’s single “Love Overboard” became a number-one R&B hit which won the 1988 Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.

Gladys Knight & the Pips embarked on their final tour in 1988 and disbanded upon its conclusion, as Gladys Knight decided she wanted to pursue a solo career. The Pips retired while Gladys Knight began scoring hits of her own with singles such as “Men” (1991) and “I Don’t Want to Know” (1994).

Legacy

Gladys Knight and the Pips had a remarkably long career in which, unlike other top Motown groups of the 60s, they continued to score hits and produce gold albums for more than two decades after “Heard It Through the Grapevine” first brought them to national attention.

In addition to their several Grammy awards and other honors, in 1988 the band also won a Soul Train Music Award for Career Achievement. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1998.

Knight, now a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continues to tour and record occasionally, and leads the Saints Unified Voices choir. Edward Patten of the Pips died in February 2005, of complications from his long bout with diabetes.

Gladys Knight & the Pips are ranked as the ninth most successful act in The Billboard Top 40 Book of R&B and Hip-Hop Hits (2005). They were also ranked number 91 on VH1’s Top 100 Artists of Rock n’ Roll. In June 2006, Gladys Knight & the Pips were inducted into the Apollo Theater’s Hall Of Fame in New York City.

 

Les Paul


Les_Paul_Guitars

Les Paul (born Lester William Polsfuss) (June 9, 1915 – August 14, 2009) was an American jazz and country guitarist, one of the key developers of the electric guitar, and a pioneer in the field of recording electronics. As a result of his trend-setting music with the Les Paul Trio and later with the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford in the 1940s and 50s, Paul influenced a generation of guitarists, especially through his use of overdubbing and other special effects. Paul also pioneered the development of the solid-body electric guitar and thus had a major impact on the evolution of rock and roll. His many recording innovations include overdubbing, delay effects, phasing effects, and multitrack recording. Paul was also instrumental in the development of new recording technologies with the Ampex Corporation.

Paul was one of the first to experiment with improving the sound of electric guitars in the 1940s and later lent his name to the Gibson “Les Paul” model guitar, one of the industry’s most popular models. He was the first known artist to use overdubbing, a technique which he invented, and soon launched a successful career with his wife, Mary Ford, featuring this and other new special effects. The couple’s hits included “How High the Moon,” “Bye Bye Blues,” and “Vaya Con Dios.”

In 1978, Les Paul and Mary Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and entered the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005. He was named the forty-sixth best guitarist of all time in 2003, by Rolling Stone. Paul died at the age of 94 on August 14, 2009 at White Plains Hospital in New York state.

Biography

Paul was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to George and Evelyn Polfuss. He later took the stage name of “Les Paul.” He also used the nickname “Red Hot Red.”

Les first became interested in music at the age of eight, when he began playing the harmonica. After an attempt at learning the banjo, he began to play the guitar. By 13, Paul was performing semi-professionally as a country music guitarist. At the age of 17, Paul played with Rube Tronson’s Cowboys. Soon after, he dropped out of high school to join Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis, Missouri on station KMOX.

In the 1930s, Paul performed jazz music on Chicago radio. His first two records were released in 1936. One was credited to “Rhubarb Red,” Paul’s hillbilly alter ego, and the other was as an accompanist for blues artist Georgia White.

The Les Paul Trio

In 1938, Paul moved to New York and landed a featured spot with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians radio show. Paul moved to Hollywood in 1943, where he formed a new trio. As a last-minute replacement for Oscar Moore, Paul played with Nat King Cole and other artists in the inaugural Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles on July 2, 1944. Also that year, Paul’s trio appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show. Crosby went on to sponsor Paul’s recording experiments.

Crosby and Paul also recorded together several times, including a 1945 number-one hit, “It’s Been A Long, Long Time.” In addition to backing Crosby and artists like The Andrews Sisters, Paul’s trio recorded several albums of their own on the Decca label in the late 1940s.

“The Les Paul” guitar

Paul was dissatisfied with the electric guitars that were sold in the mid 1930s, and began experimenting with designs of his own. He thus created “The Log” in 1941, which was simply a length of common 4″-by-4″ fence post, to which he added a bridge, guitar neck, and pickup. His innovation solved two main problems: feedback, as the acoustic body no longer resonated with the amplified sound, and lack of sustain, as the energy of the strings was not dissipated in generating sound through the guitar body.

Paul’s invention was not the first solid body guitar, as Adolph Rickenbacher had marketed his version of a solid-body instrument in the 1930s. Leo Fender independently created his own solid-body electric guitar around the same time that Paul did.

In the early 1950s, the Gibson Guitar Corporation designed a guitar incorporating Paul’s suggestions and presented it to him to try. He was impressed enough to sign a contract for what became the “Les Paul” model and agreed never to play in public or be photographed with anything other than a Gibson guitar. This arrangement persisted until 1961, when Gibson changed the design of the guitar without Paul’s knowledge. He reportedly first saw the “new” Gibson “Les Paul” in a music store window, and disliked it. Though his contract required him to pose with the guitar, he said it was not “his” instrument and asked Gibson to remove his name from the headstock. Gibson renamed the guitar the “SG,” and it, too, became one of the company’s best sellers.

Later, Paul resumed his relationship with Gibson, and continued to endorse the “Less Paul” guitar until the present, although he modifies his personal guitars to suit himself.

Today, the Gibson “Les Paul” guitar is used all over the world, by both novice and professional guitarists, much admired for its ease of play and high level of sustain. Also designed was an Epiphone “Les Paul” model, with the same outer look, but offered at a lower price.

Multitrack recording innovations

In 1947, Capitol Records released a recording that had begun as an experiment in Paul’s garage, entitled “Lover (When You’re Near Me),” which featured Paul playing eight different parts on electric guitar, some of them recorded at half-speed, hence “double-fast” when played back at normal speed for the master. This was the first time that multi-tracking had been used in a recording. Paul did not use magnetic tape for his experiments, but wax disks. Paul would record a track onto a disk, then record himself playing another part with the first. Recording parts at slightly different speeds and with delay, Paul generated his signature sound, with diverse echoes and birdsong-like guitar riffs. He later began using magnetic tape, allowing him to take his recording rig on tour with him.

In January 1948, Paul was injured in a near-fatal automobile accident in Oklahoma, which shattered his right arm and elbow. Doctors told Paul that there was no way for them to rebuild his elbow in a way that would let him regain movement, and that his arm would remain in whatever position they placed it in permanently. Paul then instructed the surgeons to set his arm at a 90-degree angle that would allow him to cradle and pick the guitar. It took him a year and a half to recover.

Career with Mary Ford and Ampex

In the early 1950s, Paul made a number of revolutionary recordings with his wife, Mary Ford, who sang. These records were unique for their heavy use of overdubbing. The couple’s hits included “How High the Moon,” “Bye Bye Blues,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise,” and “Vaya Con Dios.” These songs featured Mary harmonizing with herself, giving the vocals a novel sound.

Bing Crosby soon gave Les Paul what was only the second Ampex Model 200 tape record to be produced, and Paul immediately saw its potential both for special effects, such as echo and flanging, as well as its suitability for improved multitrack recording.

Using this machine, Paul developed his tape multitrack system by adding an additional recording head and extra circuitry, allowing multiple tracks to be recorded separately and asynchronously on the same tape. Paul’s invention was quickly developed by Ampex into commercially-produced two-track and three-track recorders, and these machines were the backbone of the professional recording studio, radio, and TV industry in the 1950s and early 1960s.

In 1954, Paul continued to develop this technology by commissioning Ampex to build the first eight track tape recorder, at his expense. The machine took three years to get working properly, and Paul says that by the time it was functional, his music was out of favor and so he never had a hit record using it. His design, later known as “Sel-Sync,” (Selective Synchronization) in which a specially modified recording head could either record a new track or play back a previously recorded one, was the core technology for multitrack recording for the next 30 years.

Paul and Ford, as well as Crosby, also used the now-ubiquitous recording technique known as close miking, where the microphone is less than six inches from the singer’s mouth. This produces a more intimate, less reverberant sound than is heard when a singer is a foot or more from the microphone. The technique emphasizes low-frequency sounds in the voice due to the microphone’s proximity effect and can give a more relaxed feel because the performer is not working so hard. The result is a singing style which diverged strongly from unamplified theater-style singing.

Paul hosted a 15-minute radio program, The Les Paul Show, on NBC in 1950, featuring his trio (himself, Ford, and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton). The show also spotlighted Paul’s electronic effects, dazzling renditions of classic pop and jazz numbers, and gentle humor between Paul and Ford. Several recordings of these shows survive among old-time radio collectors today.

Later career and legacy

In the late 1960s, Paul went into semi-retirement, although he returned to the studio occasionally. He and Mary Ford divorced in December 1964. Paul recorded a successful album for London Records, Les Paul Now in 1967, on which he updated some of his earlier hits. A decade later, backed by some of Nashville’s celebrated studio musicians, he produced a meld of jazz and country improvisation with fellow guitar virtuoso Chet Atkins, entitled Chester and Lester, for RCA Victor.

In 1978, Les Paul and Mary Ford were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. By the late 1980s, Paul had returned to active weekly live performances in New York City. He received a Grammy Trustees Award for his lifetime achievements in 1983. In 1988, Paul was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Jeff Beck, who said, “I’ve copied more licks from Les Paul than I’d like to admit.” Paul was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in May 2005, for his development of the solid-body electric guitar. In 2006, Paul was inducted into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. In 2006, at the age of 90, he won two Grammys at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for his album, Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played.

A biographical, feature length documentary, titled Chasing Sound: Les Paul at 90, made its world premiere on May 9, 2007 at the Downer Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Paul appeared at the event and spoke briefly to the enthusiastic crowd. In June 2008, an exhibit showcasing his legacy and featuring items from his personal collection opened at Discovery World in Milwaukee. Paul played a concert in Milwaukee to coincide with the opening of the exhibit.

Paul is the godfather of rock guitarist Steve Miller of the Steve Miller Band, to whom Paul gave his first guitar lesson.

 

James Beck “Jim” Gordon


jimgordon

James Beck “Jim” Gordon (born July 14, 1945) is an American recording artist, musician and songwriter. The Grammy Award winner was one of the most requested session drummers in the late 1960s and 1970s, recording albums with many well-known musicians of the time, and was the drummer in the blues rock supergroup Derek and the Dominos, Little Richard, and Delaney & Bonnie. In 1983, Gordon, at the time an undiagnosed schizophrenic, murdered his mother and was sentenced to sixteen years to life in prison.

Music career

Gordon began his career in 1963, at age seventeen, backing The Everly Brothers, and went on to become one of the most sought-after recording session drummers in Los Angeles. The protégé of legendary studio drummer Hal Blaine, Gordon performed on many notable recordings in the 1960s, including Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys (1966), Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers by Gene Clark (1967), The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds (1968) and the hit “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams (1968). At the height of his career Gordon was reportedly so busy as a studio musician that he would fly back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas every day to do two or three recording sessions, and then return in time to play the evening show at Caesars Palace.

In 1969 and 1970, Gordon toured as part of the backing band for the group Delaney & Bonnie, which at the time included Eric Clapton. Clapton subsequently took over the group’s rhythm section — Gordon, bassist Carl Radle and keyboardist-singer-songwriter Bobby Whitlock. They formed a new band that was later called Derek and the Dominos. The band’s first studio work was as the house band for George Harrison’s first solo album, the three-disc set All Things Must Pass. Gordon then played on Derek and the Dominos’ 1970 double album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, contributing, in addition to his drumming, the elegiac piano coda for the title track, “Layla,” co-written by Gordon and Clapton. He also played with the band on subsequent U.S. and UK tours. The group split in spring 1971 before they finished recording their second album.

In 1970, Gordon was part of Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and played on Dave Mason’s album Alone Together. In 1971, he toured with Traffic and appeared on two of their albums, including The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. That same year he played on Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson album, contributing the drum solo to the track “Jump into the Fire”. In 1972, Gordon was part of Frank Zappa’s 20-piece “Grand Wazoo” big band tour, and the subsequent 10-piece “Petit Wazoo” band. Perhaps his best-known recording with Zappa is the title track of the 1974 album Apostrophe (‘), a jam with Zappa and Tony Duran on guitar and Jack Bruce on bass guitar, for which both Bruce and Gordon received a writing credit. Also in 1974, Gordon played on the majority of tracks on Steely Dan’s album Pretzel Logic, including the single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”. He again worked with Chris Hillman of the Byrds as the drummer in the Souther–Hillman–Furay Band from 1973 to 1975. He also played drums on three tracks on Alice Cooper’s 1976 album, Alice Cooper Goes to Hell. Gordon was the drummer on the Incredible Bongo Band’s Bongo Rock album, released in 1972, and his drum break on the LP’s version of “Apache” has been frequently sampled by rap music artists.

Imprisonment

Gordon developed schizophrenia and began to hear voices, including those of his mother, which forced him to starve himself and prevented him from sleeping, relaxing or playing drums. In 1983 he attacked his mother with a hammer before fatally stabbing her. Though at trial the court accepted that Gordon had acute schizophrenia he was not allowed to use an insanity defense because of changes to California law due to the Insanity Defense Reform Act.On July 10, 1984 Gordon was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.

 

Cream


cream-band-wallpaper

Cream was a 1960s British rock band consisting of bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce, guitarist vocalist Eric Clapton, and drummer Ginger Baker. They were celebrated as the first great power trio and supergroup of rock. Featuring a hybrid of blues, pop, and psychedelic rock, Cream combined Clapton’s virtuoso blues guitar playing with the voice and bass lines of Bruce and the jazz-influenced drumming of Ginger Baker to create a unique, hybrid style that became highly influential on the musicians of their generation. The band has sold over 35 million albums worldwide. Its Wheels of Fire LP was the world’s first platinum-selling double album.

Cream’s music included songs based on traditional blues such as Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and modern blues such as Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” as well as psychedelic original songs like “Strange Brew” and “Tales of Brave Ulysses.” Cream’s biggest hits were “I Feel Free” (UK number 11), “Sunshine of Your Love” (U.S. number five), “White Room” (U.S. number six), and “Crossroads” (U.S., number 28).

Together with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream made a significant impact upon the popular music of the time, providing a powerful yet technically impressive musical style that foreshadowed the emergence of bands such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and The Jeff Beck Group. The band’s live performances influenced progressive rock acts such as Rush, jam bands such as The Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead, and Phish, and heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath.

Cream was ranked number 16 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.

History

Formation

By July 1966, Eric Clapton’s career with The Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had earned him a reputation as the premier blues guitarist in Britain. Clapton’s virtuosity and raw power with the instrument famously inspired one fan to spray paint the words “Clapton is God” on the wall of an Islington underground station. Clapton, however, found the environment of Mayall’s band confining, and sought to expand his playing in a new band.

In 1966, Clapton met Baker, then the leader of the Graham Bond Organization, which at one point featured Jack Bruce on bass, harmonica, and piano. Baker, too, felt stifled in his band. Each was impressed with the other’s playing abilities, prompting Baker to ask Clapton to join his new, then-unnamed group. Clapton immediately agreed, on the condition that Baker hire Jack Bruce as the group’s bassist. Clapton had the biggest reputation of the three in England, but he was all but unknown in the United States, since he left The Yardbirds before “For Your Love” hit the American top ten.

Cream made its unofficial debut at the Twisted Wheel Club in Manchester on July 29, 1966. Its official debut came two nights later at the Sixth Annual Windsor Jazz & Blues Festival. Being new and with few original songs to its credit, the group performed spirited reworkings of well known blues songs that thrilled the large crowd.

Bruce served as the group’s primary vocalist, while Clapton, still shy about singing, occasionally harmonized with Bruce and, in time, took lead vocals on notable Cream tunes, including “Four Until Late” and “Strange Brew” (1967); “Disraeli Gears” and “Badge” (1969); and “Goodbye” (1969).

Fresh Cream

Cream’s debut album, Fresh Cream, was recorded and released in 1966. The album reached number six on the UK charts and number 39 in the United States. It mainly consisted of blues covers, including “Four Until Late,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (Muddy Waters), “Spoonful” (Howlin’ Wolf), and “I’m So Glad,” (Skip James). The rest of the album featured songs written (or co-written) by Jack Bruce, most notably “Wrapping Paper” and “I Feel Free,” which became a UK hit single, and two songs written by Ginger Baker, including “Toad,” which contained one of the earliest examples of a drum solo in rock music).

Disraeli Gears

Cream first visited the United States in March 1967, to play nine dates at the RKO Theater in New York. The band returned to record Disraeli Gears in New York between May 11 and May 15, 1967. Cream’s second album was released in November 1967 and reached the Top Five in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. Produced by Felix Pappalardi and engineer Tom Dowd, it was recorded at Atlantic Studios in New York. Disraeli Gears is considered the band’s defining effort, successfully blending psychedelic British rock with American blues. Featuring “Strange Brew,” “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” it was the first Cream album to consist primarily of original songs, with only three of the 11 tracks written by others outside the band.

In late 1967, Cream incorporated more jamming time in their repertoire, some songs stretching out to 20 minutes in concerts, a tradition demanded by fans. Long drawn-out jams in songs like “Spoonful,” “N.S.U.,” and “Sweet Wine” became live favorites.

Wheels of Fire

Cream’s third release, Wheels of Fire (1968) topped the American charts. Wheels of Fire showcased Cream moving slightly away from the blues and more towards a progressive rock style highlighted by odd time signatures and various orchestral instruments. However, the band did record a live blues favorite, “Sitting on Top of the World.” The opening song, “White Room,” became a popular radio staple. “Politician” was written by the band while waiting to perform live at the BBC. Another popular track off the record was a cover of Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign.”

The album’s second disc featured three live recordings from California’s Winterland Ballroom and one from the Fillmore. Eric Clapton’s solo in “Crossroads” became famous and is often cited as one of the greatest live rock concert guitar solos ever recorded. The 16-minute “Spoonful,” from their March Winterland show, became their most epic song and a concert favorite. Ginger Baker’s solo in “Toad” is widely regarded as one of the greatest live drum solos in rock history.

In mid-1968, Clapton was much impressed by Bob Dylan’s former backing group, known as The Band, and their debut album, Music from Big Pink. He was also influenced by a scathing Cream review in Rolling Stone magazine, in which reviewer Jon Landau called him a master of “the blues cliché.” It was in the wake of that article that Clapton wanted to end Cream and pursue a new musical direction. At the beginning of Cream’s farewell tour on October 4, 1968, in Oakland, nearly the entire set consisted of songs from Wheels of Fire.

Breakup and Goodbye

From its creation, Cream was faced with fundamental problems that would later lead to its dissolution in November 1968. Rivalry between Bruce and Baker created tensions in the band, and Clapton felt that the members of the band did not listen to each other enough. Clapton later related that once when Cream was playing in a concert, he stopped playing, and neither Baker nor Bruce noticed.

Cream made the decision to split up in May of 1968, during a tour of the U.S. In July, an official announcement was made that the band would break up after a farewell tour of the United States and after playing two concerts in London.

Cream’s “farewell tour” consisted of 22 shows at 19 venues in the United States between October 4 and November 4, 1968, and two final farewell concerts at the Royal Albert Hall on November 26, 1968. Initially another double album was planned, comprising live material from this tour plus new studio tracks, but a single album, Goodbye was released instead with three live tracks taken from their performance at The Forum in Los Angeles on October 19, 1968, and three studio tracks, one written by each of the band members. The final United States gig was at the Rhode Island Auditorium, November 4, 1968.

Goodbye was released in early 1969, after the band had broken up. Its most notable cut was, “Badge,” written by Clapton and George Harrison, who also played rhythm guitar.

Reunions (1993, 2005)

In 1993, Cream was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame performing its first concert together since its farewell tour at the induction ceremony. Initially, the trio was wary about performing, until encouraging words from Robbie Robertson of The Band inspired them to try. The end result was a powerful set consisting of “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Crossroads,” and “Born Under a Bad Sign.” Clapton stated in his acceptance speech that their rehearsal the day before the ceremony had marked the first time they had played together in 25 years.

The performance spurred rumors of a reunion tour. Bruce and Baker went so far as to say in later interviews that they were, indeed, interested in touring as Cream. A formal reunion did not take place immediately, however, and Clapton continued to pursue solo projects, as did Bruce and Baker, although the two did work together again in the mid-1990s as two-thirds of a power trio, BBM, with Gary Moore.

In 2004, it was officially announced that Cream would finally reunite for a series of four shows, on May 2-6, 2005, at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the venue of their final concerts in 1968. Even more surprising was that the reunion came at Clapton’s request: Although the three musicians chose not to speak publicly about the shows, Clapton would later state that he had become more “generous” in regard to his past, and that the physical health of Bruce and Baker was a major factor: Bruce had recently undergone a liver transplant for liver cancer, and had almost lost his life, while Baker had severe arthritis.

Tickets for all four shows sold out in under an hour. Touts were soon charging outrageous prices for what became one of the hardest-to-get tickets in rock-and-roll history. The performances were recorded for a live CD and DVD. Among those in attendance were Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Steve Winwood, Roger Waters, Brian May of Queen, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, and also Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman, formerly of the Rolling Stones. The reunion marked the first time the band had played “Badge” and “Pressed Rat and Warthog” live.

The Royal Albert Hall reunion proved a success on both a personal and financial level, inspiring the reformed band to bring their reunion to the United States. For reasons unknown, Cream chose to play at only one venue, Madison Square Garden in New York City, from October 24-26, 2005. The shows were marred by some controversy in regard to tickets: The show’s promoters had made a deal with credit-card company American Express to make tickets available to American Express customers only in a week-long pre-sale. The plan was flawed and ticket scalpers amassed quantities of the tickets and which they re-sold at exorbitantly high prices. Despite this the shows were a financial success and received critical praise.

Fans of Cream hoped for a full-scale tour, but a statement from Cream’s publicist days after the last performance ended that hope, when it was announced that Cream would not tour the United States. In an interview with Jack Bruce in the December 2005 issue of Bass Player magazine, Bruce hinted that he would like to see Cream continue in one way or another, possibly in the form of a new album, but that a tour was out of the question:

It would be quite a challenge to try to create music that would stand up to the classic songs. I’ve got a few ideas already—in fact, I wrote a song yesterday that I think would work. I just don’t know if it will happen, because we all feel the band is so special we don’t want to do it that often, if we go on. We’ve had offers you wouldn’t believe—I didn’t believe—for long world tours, and it’s tempting. But none of us wants to accept because it would take away from the rarity and special nature of getting together. I’d like to do it every now and again and just play somewhere, but we could do an album amidst that, and I’m going to suggest it.

Post-Cream: 1968-present

In 1969, Clapton and Baker joined Steve Winwood and Ric Grech in Blind Faith following an attempt by Clapton to recruit Steve Winwood into the Cream in the hope that he would help act as a buffer between Bruce and Baker. However, Cream broke up before Winwood had the chance to consider the offer.

Inspired by more song-based acts, particularly The Band, Clapton went on to perform much different, less improvisational material with Delaney & Bonnie, Derek and the Dominos, and in his own long and varied solo career.

Jack Bruce began a varied and successful solo career with the 1969 release of Songs for a Tailor. Ginger Baker formed a jazz-fusion ensemble out of the ashes of Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, which featured Winwood, Blind Faith bassist Rick Grech, Graham Bond on sax, and Denny Laine of the Moody Blues, among others.

In February 2006, Cream received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their contribution to, and influence upon, modern music. That same month, a “Classic Albums” DVD was released detailing the story behind the creation and recording of Disraeli Gears.

 

Chet Atkins


 

Chet+Atkins

 

Chester Burton “Chet” Atkins (June 20, 1924 – June 30, 2001) was an influential guitarist and Nashville record producer. His picking style, inspired by Merle Travis, Django Reinhardt, and Les Paul, brought him admirers both within and outside the country scene, both in the U.S.A. and internationally.

As RCA’s top Nashville executive, Atkins produced records for Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves, Skeeter Davis, Connie Smith, and Waylon Jennings. He created, along with Owen Bradley, the smoother country music style known as the Nashville Sound, which expanded country music’s appeal to include adult pop music fans as well. This slick brand of country music in turn stimulated a reaction among purists, resulting the Outlaw country movement centered in Austin, Texas.

Atkins’ style of finger-picking opened new creative possibilities and remains highly influential among guitarists today. His willingness to branch into jazz, classical guitar, and flamenco created an inter-cultural bridge that brought his music to a wide audience and increased his influence. Atkins recorded more than 100 albums and was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Biography

Chet Atkins was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tennessee, near the Clinch Mountains, youngest of three boys and a girl. His parents divorced when he was six and he was raised by his mother. His first instrument was a ukulele and then a fiddle, and then when he was nine he acquired a guitar from his brother Lowell in exchange for an old pistol and some of his brother’s chores. Due to a near-fatal asthma condition, Atkins was a sensitive youth who made music his main focus. A self-taught musician, he became an accomplished guitarist while he was in high school.

While living with his father in Georgia, Atkins heard Merle Travis playing over WLW radio. This early influence dramatically shaped Atkins’ finger-picking style. Both used the right thumb to play the bass notes and the index finger to play melodies. However, Atkins used two other fingers of the right hand as well, resulting in a greater degree of complexity and flexibility of style.

Career

Early career

After dropping out of high school in 1942, Atkins landed a job at WNOX radio in Knoxville. There he played fiddle and guitar with singer Bill Carlisle and comic Archie Campbell as well as becoming a member of the station’s “Dixieland Swingsters,” a swing instrumental combo.

After three years, he moved to WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Merle Travis had formerly worked. Six months later, he moved to Raleigh, North Carolina and worked with singing duo Johnnie and Jack before heading for Richmond, Virginia, where he performed with Sunshine Sue Workman. Atkins’ shy personality worked against him, as did the fact that his sophisticated style led many to doubt he was truly “country.” He was fired several times, but with his unique playing ability soon found other work.

Traveling to Chicago, Atkins auditioned and joined the band of Red Foley, who was leaving his star position at the WLS National Barn Dance to join the Grand Ole Opry. Atkins made his first appearance at the Opry in 1946 as a member of Foley’s band. He also recorded an instrumental single for Nashville-based Bullet Records that year. That single, “Guitar Blues,” was progressive by country standards, including a clarinet solo by Nashville dance band musician Dutch McMillan. Atkins landed a solo spot on the Opry for a while, but when that was cut he moved on to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri, where once again he was fired for not sounding country enough.

RCA Victor

While working with a Western band in Denver, Colorado, Atkins came to the attention of RCA Victor. He made his first RCA solo recordings in Chicago in 1947, but they did not sell well. He also did some studio work for RCA and relocated to Knoxville again, where he worked with Homer and Jethro on WNOX’s new Saturday night radio show the Tennessee Barn Dance. In 1949, he joined Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters back at KWTO. The group soon moved to Nashville in mid-1950, where Atkins began working on recording sessions and performed again on WSM and the Grand Ole Opry.

While he had not yet had a hit record, Atkins’ stature was growing, and he began organizing RCA Nashville sessions. Atkins’ first hit single was an instrumental version of “Mr. Sandman,” followed by the Christmas song “Silver Bell”(s) which he did as a duet with Hank Snow. His albums also became more popular. In addition to recording, Atkins became a design consultant for Gretsch, who manufactured a popular Chet Atkins line of electric guitars from 1955-1980. Atkins also became manager of RCA’s Nashville studio, eventually inspiring the creation of the legendary Studio B. This was the first studio built specifically for the purpose of recording on the now famous Music Row.

The Nashville Sound

Atkins took charge of RCA’s Nashville division in 1957. With country music record sales suffering as a result of the success of rock and roll, Atkins and Bob Ferguson took their cue from Patsy Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley, and eliminated fiddles and steel guitar as a way of making country singers appeal to pop fans. This became known as the Nashville Sound. Atkins used Elvis Presley’s vocal backing group, the Jordanaires, and a pop-oriented rhythm section on hits like Jim Reeves’ “Four Walls” and “He’ll Have to Go;” and Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” and “Blue Blue Day.” As a result, the once rare phenomenon of having a country hit “cross over” to the pop charts became more common.

Atkins also made his own records, which usually visited pop standards and jazz, in a sophisticated home studio, often recording the rhythm tracks at RCA but adding his solo parts at home. Guitarists of all styles came to admire various Atkins albums for their unique musical ideas and in some cases experimental electronic ideas. In this period he became known internationally as “Mister Guitar,” also the name of one of Atkins’s albums. Atkins performed by invitation at the White House for presidents Kennedy through George H. W. Bush.

Atkins’s own biggest hit single came in 1965, with “Yakety Axe,” an adaptation of his friend saxophonist Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.”

Now vice president of RCA’s country division, Atkins brought Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Connie Smith, Bobby Bare, Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed, and John Hartford to the label in the 1960s. He took a considerable risk during the mid-1960s by signing country music’s first African-American singer Charley Pride. Ironically, some of Pride’s biggest fans were among the most conservative country fans, many of whom did not care for the pop stylings Atkins had added.

Meanwhile, Atkins’ slick Nashville Sound and his corporate management style—insisting that performers adhere to his vision of what would work commercially whether they liked it or not—did not sit well with talents like Nelson and Jennings. In the late 1960s, they would relocate to Austin, Texas and form their brand of “Outlaw country,” proving that there was still a major market for “authentic” country music devoid of compromise with the pop market.

In 1969, Atkins had his last major hit single, “Country Gentleman.”

Later career

In the 1970s, Atkins became increasingly stressed by his executive duties. He produced fewer records but could still turn out hits such as Perry Como’s pop hit “And I Love You So.” He recorded extensively with close friend and fellow picker Jerry Reed. A 1973 bout of colon cancer, however, led Atkins to redefine his role at RCA, to allow others to handle administration while he went back to his first love, the guitar, often recording with Reed or even Homer & Jethro’s Jethro Burns (Atkins’s brother-in-law) after Homer died in 1971. However, he continued to want to express himself outside of the country genre. In 1972, he recorded an album with the Boston Pops orchestra and continued to experiment with other forms of guitar music.

By the end of the 1970s, Atkins’s time had passed as a producer, and RCA sensed that its country division needed to move closer to its country roots. He first retired from his position as an RCA executive, and then began to feel stifled as an artist because RCA objected to his branching out into jazz. At the same time he grew dissatisfied and began designing guitars with Gibson. He left RCA in 1982 and signed with Columbia Records, for whom he produced a debut album in 1983.

While he was with Columbia, he showed his creativity and taste in jazz guitar, and in various other contexts. He was a masterful improviser but could also read music well, and even performed some classical guitar pieces with taste and distinction. Asked to name the ten most influential guitarists of the twentieth century, he named Django Reinhardt to the first position on the list, and placed himself at fifth position.

In later years, he sometimes went back to performing on radio, appearing on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, and even picking up a fiddle from time to time. While he did more performing in the 1990s, his health grew frail from worsening colon cancer. He died on June 30, 2001 at his home in Nashville.

Legacy

Atkins received numerous awards, including eleven Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993), and nine Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year awards. Billboard Magazine awarded him their Century Award, their “highest honor for distinguished creative achievement,” in December 1997.

A virtuoso instrumentalist, Atkins expanded the universe for guitarists—and lovers of guitar music—in a way no one did before. For better or worse, he was the driving force behind the creation of the Nashville Sound, which helped revive the fortunes of country music even as it removed some of the authentic southern folk qualities which many fans and artists craved.

Of his own legacy he once said, “Years from now, after I’m gone, someone will listen to what I’ve done and know I was here. They may not know or care who I was, but they’ll hear my guitars speaking for me.”

In 2002, Atkins was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Fame. The following year, Atkins ranked #28 in CMT’s 40 Greatest Men of Country Music. A stretch of Interstate 185 in southwest Georgia (between LaGrange and Columbus) is named “Chet Atkins Parkway.”