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Monthly Archives: June 2017

Country Music Legend

Campbell was an iconic performer whose career spanned half a century, and who blurred the lines between country and pop.

Campbell once said he didn’t consider himself a “country singer,” but rather a “country boy who sings.” And historian John Rumble from the Country Music Hall of Fame says Campbell had something few do.

“When he was on stage and started to sing, you knew there was a star on stage,” Rumble says. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s an aura. It’s a feeling. You knew this was somebody special.”

His biggest hit topped both the pop and country charts in 1975: “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

Long before he was a household name, Campbell was a studio musician in Los Angeles, part of the famous “Wrecking Crew,” a loose cluster of studio players who backed stars on many hits of the day.

Campbell was a self-taught guitarist whose training consisted mostly of informal lessons in the lap of his Uncle Boo back in Arkansas. Campbell couldn’t read music, but Rumble says he could play anything.

“Glen just fit right in, he was so doggone good,” Rumble recalls.

The exact scope of Campbell’s output in the ’50s and ’60s is unknown, because producers cloaked who actually played on a session. But he provided guitar parts for records by Jan and Dean, The Monkees, Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys. Campbell even became a Beach Boy for about six months, replacing front-man Brian Wilson on tour. Years later, Campbell mentioned it in his own concerts.

“It was fun, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my musical career playing bass and singing the high part,” he joked.

His solo career got off to a slow start. But after a few minor hits, he found a groove. He began a long-term collaboration with songwriter Jimmy Webb, who says he grew up daydreaming about working with Glen Campbell. The two would become musical partners. And Webb says Campbell doesn’t get enough credit for his contributions beyond performing.

“Nobody compared with him when it came to picking a song and then arranging it,” Webb said. “He left his stamp on whatever material he did.”

Together, Webb and Campbell produced such Top 40 hits as “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman.”

Campbell’s chart success led to opportunities in film and TV, including a stint on network television, where he hosted Glen Campbell’s Good Time Hour. Guests ranged from actor John Wayne to The Monkees to his own family. But at the height of his fame, Campbell hit personal lows — divorces and a drug and alcohol problem. His struggle with cocaine surprised those who knew him best, considering his Christian upbringing and outspoken faith.

Eventually, though, he got his life back in order and continued performing. Then, in 2011, he announced he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And instead of receding into the shadows, he planned a tour. For more than a year, he played shows around the country, backed by a band that included some of his children

“It was completely embedded in this guy’s psyche and he’d done it since he was five years old,” Keach tells NPR. “It’s his default is that his hands will st <iframe src=”https://www.npr.org/player/embed/542357361/542357362″ width=”100%” height=”290″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” title=”NPR embedded audio player”></iframe> art doing that. That’s his language. His first language is music.”

Removes Racist Music

In a statement on Wednesday, Spotify blamed the labels and distributors that supply music to its database but said “material that favors hatred or incites violence against race, religion, sexuality or the like is not tolerated by us. Spotify takes immediate action to remove any such material as soon as it has been brought to our attention.”

Tidal, the streaming service partially owned by Jay-Z, seems to be following suit. Two “hate bands” NPR found on the platform on Tuesday had been removed as of Thursday morning.

The existence of racist music on music platforms isn’t a new phenomenon. Nearly three years ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out to Apple and the iTunes Store that they were selling, and thereby profiting from, openly racist, neo-fascist musicians, like the hardcore band Skrewdriver.

In March 2015, the SPLC published a follow-up to its iTunes report that specifically addressed the fact that other digital platforms — most notably, Spotify and Amazon — were continuing to sell such music.

Matt Alpert, the website’s managing editor, wrote, “I want to make something very clear to everyone who follows us and reads this site: Wide Open Country vehemently opposes any form of racism. We stand firmly against any type of hatred, bigotry and especially any Nazi scum.”

“I felt compelled to say something,” Alpert told NPR. “With this particular thing that happened in Charlottesville, we wanted to be clear about how we felt about that and where we stand. Seeing those comments, and seeing them rise to the top [of the post] … it felt like we needed to say something.”

Writing on Facebook Wednesday, country music royalty Rosanne Cash took aim at a “self-proclaimed neo-Nazi” who was photographed wearing a T-shirt with Johnny Cash’s face on it. “We were sickened by the association,” she wrote, going on to point out that her father’s “pacifism and inclusive patriotism were two of his most defining characteristics.”

Facebook’s terms prohibit posting content it classifies as “hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” The dominance of Facebook’s platform helped to legitimize voices like Cantwell’s through proximity to more legitimate news sources within people’s feeds, a problem it says it is working to fix.

In a memo to his staff yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced his company would donate $2 million and double its employees’ donations to human rights groups through Sept. 30. “As a company, through our actions, our products and our voice, we will always work to ensure that everyone is treated equally and with respect,” Cook wrote.

Houston’s Jazz Envoys Describe

Kendrick Scott Oracle, is stocked with serious talent, each musician a distinguished leader in his own right. Among them is guitarist Mike Moreno who, like Scott, originally hails from Houston, and has been keeping an anxious watch on the events of the past week.

The catastrophic wake of Hurricane Harvey has stretched across East Texas and into Louisiana, taking lives and uprooting tens of thousands of others, while causing billions of dollars in damage and disruption. But the flooding in Houston has been a specific worry for that city’s jazz diaspora, which includes some of the most important artists of the present era.

Those musicians all have families back home, and in the days since Harvey made landfall last week, a lot of energy has been devoted to checking up on them, and on each other. Glasper’s father, who lives in Beaumont, lost a friend to floodwaters there. But Glasper, like the half-dozen other musicians I spoke with, considers his family fortunate. “We’ve been on a thread of text messages making sure everybody is cool,” he said, “me and Jamire Williams, Eric Harland, Chris Dave, Kendrick, Jason Moran.”

Brenda Harland, the mother of Eric Harland, took this photo from her porch in the Pleasantville neighborhood of Houston.

Brenda Harlan

Notwithstanding Moran, another pianist, every name Glasper lists is an esteemed drummer-bandleader who has helped evolve the pulse of the music. Harland, the big brother of the bunch, was alarmed to see pictures taken by his mother on Saturday, as water was rising around his childhood home.

“There was a moment when I realized I couldn’t get back there,” he said on Wednesday night, after his efforts to travel to Houston from New York were forestalled. (He made it as far as Dallas-Fort Worth.) “You just want to cry, but you can’t. I’m not the one going through it; if anybody should be crying, it’s them.”

Harland’s mother was evacuated by FEMA before the flooding worsened, and she’ll be assessing the damage in the coming days. She resides in the Pleasantville neighborhood of northeast Houston, which is also where Moran’s grandfather lives. (He made it out safely too.)

“I have maybe hundreds of family members in Houston,” said Moran, who among other things is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. “Nearly all of them are, miraculously, OK. But I have so much concern about how the city rebuilds after this. And it’s not only physically, but psychologically — the trauma of having all this water inundate a livelihood. Kind of like what we saw happen with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. These are bastions of southern creativity that could, all of a sudden, be washed away.”

That fretful focus on the near-future is a prevailing theme now. “What concerns me is the aftermath,” said pianist Helen Sung. She grew up in southwest Houston, which saw considerable flooding from Brays Bayou. (Her parents, first-generation immigrants, are safe.)

Kendrick Scott was raised partly in Meyerland, another area that experienced devastating flooding. (He said his father, in Missouri City, had been shut in by water but was well-provisioned.) Scott has a unique perspective on the cultural implications of the storm, as a longtime associate of New Orleans-born trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard.

On the 2007 Blue Note album A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina), Scott helped Blanchard create a poignant reflection on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And before his set at the Jazz Standard, 12 years to the day after the breach of levees in New Orleans, Scott voiced wariness about any comparison between that moment and this one.

“I’m actually searching my feelings to see how I feel,” he said. “I need more information. It’s been so dark that I’ve just been talking to my family, instead of looking at the news.”

Houston’s jazz infrastructure is a curious thing, at once diffuse and deeply entrenched. There are a handful of clubs that feature jazz, with a focus on local talent. Cezanne, on the second floor of a building in the Montrose neighborhood, plans to reopen this Friday with the Bruce Saunders Quartet. Also back in business are Café 4212 and Phil & Derek’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar. But assessing the recovery of the scene isn’t as simple as ticking off a list of venues.

“Jazz musicians in the city play everywhere,” said Moran. “They play at the restaurant, they play at the church, they play at the bar. Or the theaters downtown, like the Wortham. And people live all over the city.

A Master Of Musical Understatement

Walter Becker on those endless (ridiculous) listicles ranking the “Guitar Gods of the 1970s.” He’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as major dudes like Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page, or Duane Allman, or Carlos Santana, or Billy Gibbons, or Frank Zappa.

Becker, who died Sunday at the age of 67, stands apart from that class, off in a semi-neglected dark corner, his contribution to the rock canon less clearly defined. He had technical dexterity on the guitar, but was hardly a shredder. Or a flamethrower. He didn’t grandstand. Sometimes he didn’t even play the big solos — he regularly hired studio hotshots to provide firepower on the Steely Dan hits he cowrote with keyboardist and singer Donald Fagen.

If pop music is a constant tug of war between the reassuringly familiar and the jolt of the modernist new, Becker’s gift was the ability to hit both extremes at once. What Becker added to Steely Dan was an elusive strain of magic — the terse little melodic thing that turned out to be exactly what the music needed. And nothing more.

Becker and Fagen were also known jazzheads, and the music of Steely Dan embraces some verities of Sinatra-era song — the bridge sections and tricky chord progressions — while rejecting the smoother happily-ever-after storybook narratives. The duo worked on the lyrics and every other aspect of the songs together, and though Fagen was the “voice” of Steely Dan, his edge-of-sarcasm tinge needed softening.

Becker was a conjurer, sly and tactical. His lines could be weird and skronky while also accessible and melodic. He used strange configurations of notes and chords that at first seem odd, but later register as devastatingly apt. He had the basic guitaristic things covered — the Malibu singer-songwriter strumming and the greasy Memphis R&B rhythm, the arena-rock pitchbending caterwaul and the precision-minded Wes Montgomery octaves — yet rarely deployed them in conventional ways.

And though he took his share of solos (for ear-stretching delirium in a blues context, check out his romp on “Black Friday” from 1975’s Katy Lied), some of his most intriguing work is embedded in the background – the architectural arpeggios of “Aja,” or the wry, blues-tinged asides that dot the margins of “Hey Nineteen.”

Becker approached his guitar and bass playing (and, really, the entire production) as part of the songwriting process, an extension of it. He and Fagen were both obsessed with tone; there are countless stories of the duo chasing a particular snare drum sound for days on end in the studio. As a guitarist, Becker understood the ways distortion and other textural effects could change the atmospheric pressure of a track, and he used these devices to more musical ends than most guitarists. Becker’s rhythm-guitar accompaniments had a spiky, almost confrontational air. His bass playing was devastatingly simple, a smack to the gut. His leads could be brainy or spooky or confounding or obtuse — whatever would best enhance the vibe of the song.

Where most guitar heroes of his era charged into the center ring with fistfuls of notes and blazing chords, Becker preferred to sneak in through the back door, and in just a few measures and fewer notes, rearrange all the furniture. The result was something instantly riveting that you’d want to hear again and again — even if (especially if) you were not even paying attention to what the guitar was doing. Forget about the moment of solo glory; Becker wanted — and attained, with astounding consistency — the thick and undeniable vibe that made a piece of music magnetic.

And when Becker couldn’t conjure the mojo he heard in his head, he’d bring in a sharpshooter for the job. From one perspective, Becker managed the Steely Dan records as guitar salons, gatherings of prodigiously talented musicians who were tapped for strategic vibe infusions as Becker and Fagen’s vision evolved. Among the highlights: Larry Carlton’s searing “Kid Charlemagne” from The Royal Scam, Denny Dias playing electric sitar on “Do It Again” and guitar in a post-bop jazz mood on “Your Gold Teeth II.” The list goes on, and extends to “Lucky Henry” from Becker’s underappreciated 1994 solo effort 11 Tracks of Whack, which features brain-melting turns by Dean Parks and Adam Rogers.

All of those moments are improvisational, and reveal unique traits of each contributing instrumentalist. Yet they’re also the deliberate product of the duo’s refined aesthetic — if Becker is somewhat invisible from note to note on the records, he and Fagen are inescapable as creators and refiners of a instantly identifiable sound. Very few rock-era acts evolved the way Steely Dan did — from a modest live unit into architects of a high-gloss, impossible-to-replicate studio signature that sprouted new atmospheres with each album.