music, singing

Paying the Bills

We lost “country singer” Glen Campbell recently. Glen was “known” for his hits “Wichita Lineman”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”. He was also known, unfortunately, for his struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease and for the “farewell tour” of recordings he’d been on since his diagnosis. His last album was called “Adios”. Perfect. It got me thinking of the unique situation he was in at the end of his career and life. He knew it was over and acted accordingly. One of the many terrible things about a terminal disease is the knowledge that death is coming and coming soon. While this is an incredibly horrific burden to bear for all involved, it opens interesting possibilities for the artist. If memory serves, Warren Zevon faced a similar situation. Diagnosed with cancer, Zevon rejected treatment that may have incapacitated him and instead focused on making a final album. The album featured many guest appearances and the recording sessions were documented by VH1. Notwithstanding the quality of the album, sentiments were high and the record charted and was nominated for five Grammys, winning two – the first of Zevon’s career. Country singer/songwriter/producer Lee Hazlewood was diagnosed with renal cancer and also went into the studio one last time. Zevon and Hazlewood shared a persona in that they neither cared one iota what the ‘hit parade’ may look like at any time in history but instead went with their guts, sometimes producing music that was inaccessible to the general public but was embraced by the industry, by critics and by the more discerning record buyer. Hazelwood’s final album was a completely different scenario to Zevon’s. Lee’s record featured zero celebrity guest stars and enjoyed zero chart activity or Grammy noms. But it was “Hazelwood” right down to the core and he was able to go out on his own terms.

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Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while he was recording what would be his third last album, “Ghost on the Canvas”. He and his producers finished the album with the thinking that it would be his last. He embarked on a farewell tour announcing his diagnosis beforehand so fans would know what was up if things went wrong on stage. Glen was able to record two more albums. “See You There” is a startling testament. Glen revisits old hits and, to me, the strength of his voice is remarkable. Jimmy Webb’s “Postcards from Paris” from this album is one of the most heartbreaking songs I’ve ever heard. “Adios” – his aptly titled final album – features a less vibrant sounding Glen joined by Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. The thing, though, that I always think of when I think of Glen Campbell is his reputation as a guitar virtuoso. When I was young and first heard this I found it hard to reconcile with the guy who hosted “Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour” and sang “Rhinestone Cowboy”.

I first heard of Glen Campbell through the Beach Boys. I fell in love with Brian Wilson and his band when I was 12 years old.  Those who know will know that Brian left the touring band at the end of the seminal year 1964 to focus on songwriting and production and was replaced by Campbell. When I was a kid and read this it was a real head-scratcher: “what is Rhinestone Cowboy country guy doing in the Beach Boys?”. Fact is, Glen had already played on many Beach Boys hits as part of the famed ‘Wrecking Crew’. This was a crack group of session musicians that were used extensively in the Los Angeles area at the time. They deserve their own post as a case could be made that they played on almost EVERY significant artists’ songs throughout the 1960’s. The Wrecking Crew boasted excellent guitar players, one of which was Glen. The thing about being a session musician was you had to be good. Very good. You had to be able to translate an artist’s thoughts and ideas. You had to give voice to the directions and demands of producers who were looking for a particular sound. In this environment Glen Campbell became one of the best, one of the most respected and sought after musicians on the West coast. So it actually made perfect sense that he would replace Brian on the road, singing and playing bass at several shows at the end of 1964 and into the new year. Glen – and his fellow session musicians – were often called upon to be part of a “band” that had been created by an inspired record producer with an original idea.

By the late ’60’s, Glen Campbell was a good, ol’ boy from Arkansas who found himself the most technically proficient and the most in demand guitar player in Los Angeles. A virtuoso, adept at any and all types of music but with country in his soul. He chose to leave the comforts of the lucrative studio life and become a country music recording artist. This career path makes him unique, to come from the ranks of session musicians to strike out on his own and be successful. I’m hard pressed to think of another example of a performer taking this path. Sheryl Crow, I know, was a back-up singer before making her own records. Now Glen becomes very popular and successful as a country artist, scoring hits with “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. The general public has no way of knowing of his considerable ability on the guitar. He is, after all, ‘just’ a country singer. While his records didn’t call for it, in concert he was able to show off his incredible skill and YouTube videos can attest that he would often really cut loose in a live performance. Campbell is maybe first in a line of virtuoso guitarists that became popular as singers and personalities that were not necessarily known for their guitar playing prowess. Prince and Keith Urban come to mind. The kind of music they became popular for performing did not necessarily require or feature amazing guitar playing. But when unleashing a blistering solo was called for, all three could deliver. I always imagine people leaving a Glen Campbell show and being amazed that he could play like that. “Why doesn’t he do more of that?!” they may have asked. He didn’t because that was not what paid the bills.

This got me thinking of the many talented people throughout the years that have adopted a persona because it is acceptable and lucrative even though they would much rather be doing something else. The Hollywood studio system during the Golden Age is perhaps where this phenomenon originated. Typecasting was common and if you were an actor who had success in comedies, you made comedies or if you looked like the ‘wise father-type’, you played wise fathers. You can find many examples of this throughout history. Sometimes, it will be like Glen Campbell’s case; he was REALLY GOOD at something other than what he was known for. Other times, it will simply be a case of paying the bills – ‘this is what they know me as and they will pay to see me do this. They won’t pay to see me do what I really want to do’. Think Michael Jordan playing baseball.

People of a certain age will remember Roy Clark. Clark co-hosted a popular country and western-themed variety/comedy show throughout the 1970’s called “Hee Haw”. Roy was an affable country boy who picked and sang and acted in comedy sketches on this immensely popular show that lasted an astounding 23 seasons. Everybody knew Roy Clark as “the host of ‘Hee Haw'”. But Roy was possessed of a skill on stringed instruments that, while largely unknown, was substantial. His abilities on the violin, the banjo and on classical guitar have made him an enormous influence on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. Case in point: to see him play “Malaguena” on an episode of “The Odd Couple” is startling.

The aforementioned Brian Wilson is an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a young man, Brian had aspirations to become another Phil Spector: to be a producer of multiple acts, to have his own stable. In order to get on his feet in the music business, he formed a band with his brothers and cousin that hitched it’s wagon to the surf music trend of the early 1960’s. Unfortunately, the Beach Boys became exceedingly popular and Brian suddenly found himself trapped as the bass player of a surf band. It took mountains moving to even excuse him from tedious life on the road and he was finally able to stay at home and write and produce music; some of the greatest American music ever made. But his reputation was never able to soar above the apparent simplicity of the songs his band put out. Only those who really knew understood his genius and appreciated the harmonic complexity of his work. In keeping with the Beach Boys, both of Brian’s brothers – Carl and Dennis – put out solo records during their decades-long tenures with the band. They also could not emerge from the long shadows and – after exercising their creativity outside the fold – they realized that they had to ‘pay the bills’ – and this meant returning to the band and continuing to be ‘Beach Boys’.

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Along the same lines you have another legendary band from the 1960’s, The Monkees. Originally, the four boys had signed on to be on a TV show – not in a band. The show lasted only two years but the band as a musical entity continued to enjoy popularity after the show ended. Eventually, all four members became proficient musicians and wanted to operate as such and they eventually released albums utilizing their own talents. Then, later on, each had a desire to make their own records – to be solo acts. There must have been times – and this has happened with many bands – when each member had written a song they were proud of. They would have loved to have gone into the studio, recorded the song and maybe nine others for an album, released it and toured behind it and promoted it on television talk shows. But the chances of the public buying a record by Peter Tork were low. One by “The Monkees”? Much higher. Therefore, they had to hang on to their songs and wait until the next “Monkees” project could be put together. Another variation of this can be seen in the case of the Grass Roots. An excellent pop/rock band of the late ’60’s, the Grass Roots employed a horn section which set them apart at the time. The band was actually created by producers P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri. The famous Wrecking Crew studio band played on the original songs backing up the vocals of Sloan. When one of these early songs – “Where Were You When I Needed You?” – became a hit, Sloan and Barri had to find an actual band that would become “The Grass Roots”. The “band” went through three incarnations during their hit years. Each time, the producers found an existing band who were not ‘paying the bills’ very well under their own steam and would agree to forego their identity and take up the already-popular moniker – become “The Grass Roots” – and record high quality material in a polished and professional environment. Twice the enlisted bands bristled under the strict direction they were getting and went back to doing things themselves. Interestingly, throughout “The Grass Roots”‘s existence, even with all the changing personnel and the fabricated nature of the proceedings, they put out great songs and had chart success.

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Tom Jones is another great example. Like most men of his age from the UK, Jones was a huge fan of American blues, r&b and rock ‘n’ roll. When he started out in the business, that’s the kind of music he sang. He was basically a white Wilson Pickett. As he began to become popular, managers and agents became involved. Part of their jobs was to find their clients (who generally didn’t write their own songs) quality material to record. Tom’s handlers came across “It’s Not Unusual”, a song they thought would suit him well. Tom wasn’t so sure. He was a ‘shouter’, after all and this track they wanted him to do was not that. It was very middle-of-the-road and horn-based; not the bleating saxes he was used to but popping trumpets. But, of course, he did it and, of course, it was a huge, international success. His people began to bring him more of the same – and country and western. Next thing you know he is extremely popular but he is not recording the type of music he really wants to. He’s not being the type of singer he really is. Then the money and stardom that Las Vegas in the 1970’s can provide is offered to him and he accepts. Now he’s really not Wilson Pickett. But he’s paying the bills. Which brings to mind what you hear from a lot of singers, usually white males. ‘I love rhythm and blues, I love Elvis Presley, I love Jackie Wilson and all the old singers’ – but what these white males record and have success with is nowhere near what purists would call “rhythm and blues”.

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Speaking of Elvis Presley, he and Sam Cooke both wanted nothing more than to be gospel singers. They both, basically, had to compromise. They both became legends in their respective fields – rock ‘n’ roll and soul – and both lovingly recorded some gospel music throughout their careers, albeit ‘on the side’. I’ve always loved the film “The Fabulous Baker Boys”. Real-life brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges portray Jack and Frank Baker, two legends of the piano bar circuit. After umpteen years of this however, Jeff’s character, Jack, is fed up. He has always loved jazz and plays it anonymously in small clubs every chance he gets. As time goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with ‘paying the bills’ by playing music he hates while continually putting his jazz dreams on hold. He’s making money playing “Feelings”. He won’t make much playing “‘Round Midnight” in smoky clubs but that’s what he decides he needs.

Speaking of jazzbos, Charlie Watts is a fascinating example of a guy who’s been ‘paying the bills’ for almost 60 years. The legendary drummer of “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band” – the Rolling Stones – is a jazz man at heart. As an aside, the man is also a graphic artist and has designed many of the album covers and stage set-ups the band has used over the years. Wikipedia states it plainly and, I think, comically: “Although he has made his name in rock, his personal tastes lie principally in jazz”. Which is very not rock. The guy’s been considered one of the top 12 rock drummers ever and he doesn’t even like it all that much! As early as the late 1970’s, he has put together jazz ensembles for live performance and for recordings. He has put out jazz records with “The Charlie Watts Quintet” and “The Charlie Watts Tentet”. Those of you who have ever seen him play with the Stones in concert or video will know that he always looks like he’s embarrassed or he’d rather be 100 miles away from Mick as he prances and Keith as he twitches and stumbles. Watts has stayed faithful – faithful – to his wife of 53 years, abused alcohol for only three years in the 1980’s, sketches every hotel room he’s ever stayed in, beat throat cancer which showed up 20 years after he quit smoking, has showed up for years on Best Dressed lists and now lives in a rural village in England and raises horses with his wife. He is one sedate cat who just happens to play drums for maybe the wildest band in history. Hey, it pays the bills.

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music

Stayin’ Alive: Hal Blaine

Harold Simon Belsky  is 88 years old. Some consider him the world’s greatest drummer. Which I imagine you think is funny because you’ve likely never heard of him. If I told you his professional name was Hal Blaine I’d probably still get a blank stare. What band was he with, you ask? Well…all of them. Hal Blaine is a session musician which is something that probably needs a bit of explanation in this day and age. The session musician or ‘studio musician’ is a highly skilled musician who is hired on a short term basis to provide backing musical accompaniment for a singer or band. They are mostly utilized in the studio for recordings and also will sometimes join a band to play live dates in support  of a touring artist. Confusion may be apparent due to the fact that we have all become accustomed to established, self-contained bands: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. All made up of four+ guys who recorded and toured together. But if you consider singers as wide ranging as Barbara Streisand, Johnny Mathis and Neil Diamond all the way up to Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and Michael Buble, these artists – for the most part – need musicians to perform on recordings and back them in concert. Now, granted, some artists form their own bands and they stick together for years. But a lot of the time solo singers will go with ‘hired guns’ in the studio: experienced pros who know what they’re doing. I remember once when I was a kid listening to Simon and Garfunkel and I wondered who was playing all the instruments I was hearing. It certainly wasn’t the two of them. Session musicians almost never achieve celebrity but the best of them gain recognition and respect in the musical community.

Perhaps the most recognized and respected and probably the most recorded and the most successful session drummer in rock history is Hal Blaine of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Early on in his career, Hal decided that what he wanted to be was an ‘accompanist’: along with maybe a keyboardist or a bassist, he would ‘back’ singers as opposed to looking for a band to join. His earliest ‘accompanying’ jobs entailed him playing the drums all night in strip clubs. He persevered in small clubs until he joined up with singer Tommy Sands which gained Hal a certain amount of attention in the industry. Then Hal settled in Los Angeles where he could easily secure jobs playing on television and on film soundtracks. Word spread quickly. Here was a meticulous professional who could read music, keep a perfect back beat, contact and hire musicians and – sometimes most importantly – crack a joke to relieve the tension at a session that maybe wasn’t going too well. He soon became known as the ‘first call’ drummer for any and all sessions in Hollywood and the Los Angeles area, where most of the big records of the time were being made. The list of artists he worked with and legendary recordings he played on is truly staggering. It started with the aforementioned Tommy Sands, who was a lightweight singer known more for being Nancy Sinatra’s first husband, and continued with Patti Page. Then he came to the attention of master record producer Phil Spector. At this point, Spector was just starting his own record label and building a roster of stars, all of whom were backed by Hal and the rest of the ‘Wrecking Crew’ – the unofficial name given to the cream of the studio musicians that were starting to be heard backing many different singers on many different hit records. Many critics agree that the pinnacle came with Phil Spector’s recording of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” which went to number 2 in late 1963. The song – with Hal’s distinctive opening drum phrase – was ranked 22nd in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the top 500 songs of all time. Indeed, E Street drummer Max Weinberg has said that if “Be My Baby” was the only song that Hal Blaine ever played drums on his name would still be revered. And famously Brian Wilson was so obsessed with the song and the overall production of it that at one point in the ’70s Brian’s daughter Carnie says that her dad played the song all the time – literally ALL THE TIME. It has been called the greatest pop record ever made. To break down the significance of all the recordings that Hal Blaine played drums on would take more time than I’ve got here but that very fact tells you how prolific and successful he was. The artists he recorded with is a list of the very best – the VERY best – artists of all -time, not just the ’60s: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, the Beach Boys,  Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, America, Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Pat Boone, the Byrds, Captain and Tennille, the Carpenters, Ray Charles, Cher, Leonard Cohen, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Connie Francis, Jan And Dean, Michael Landon, The Mamas and the Papas, Henry Mancini, the Monkees, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Orbison, Patti Page, The Partridge Family, Louis Prima, Diana Ross, Simon and Garfunkel, Nancy Sinatra, Steely Dan, Barbra Streisand, The Supremes and Andy Williams to name just most of them. He was the first sideman to be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He is credited with pioneering the modern drum kit. In his heyday, producers demanded he provide the signature tom fills he was becoming noted for. To achieve this sound, Hal built a ‘tom rack’ consisting of eight tom drums. Rolling Stone Magazine has ranked him 5th on their list of the greatest drummers in history. Think about that: only Neil Peart, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon and John Bonham rank ahead of him. But it gets crazier. Hal has played on 40 – FORTY – #1 hit singles, from “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares in 1962 to the Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” in 1975. He’s played on over 150 Top Ten hits and on an estimated 35,000 songs, making him the most prolific and successful drummer in history. Unreal. And here’s one more for you. Hal holds an actual Grammy Award record. He played drums on 6 consecutive winners of the Grammy Award for Record of the Year. For six years in a row, from 1966 to 1970, the song that won the Grammy for being the best song of the year featured drums played by Hal Blaine.

The sad part of the story comes when you consider that Hal and his associates were being paid meagerly to make records for stars who would go on the road performing and make fortunes. To make matters worse for Hal, he was taken to the cleaners in a divorce settlement and at one time had to take a job as a security guard. For the last 15-20 years, Hal has been making the rounds of conventions, holding seminars and offering his story for print and media interviews. As I said, Hal is now 88 years old. He deserves recognition now. His accomplishments are singularly unique. He is a true legend.

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