Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Most Productive Week For Shotgun Willie

Willie Nelson turns 75 today, and he shows few signs of slowing down. Willie's been an American institution for several decades, but had he retired from music back in 1963, when he was a clean-shaven songwriter, he'd still merit his own flavor of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream.

Why? Well, during one seven-day stretch in Houston -- probably in 1959 or 1960 -- he wrote "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," and "Night Life." By 1963, each of those tunes had become big hits (for other singers).

Forty-five years later, we now know just how big those songs have become. Simply put, during that one week in Houston, Willie penned three standards. Quite a feat.

I'm not sure what Willie's doing for his 75th birthday, but when he turned 70, he celebrated with an all-star concert that featured a lot of his friends and admirers. There's one clip from that concert that always brings tears to my eyes.

Maybe you can make it through this rendition of Leon Russell's "A Song For You" with dry eyes, but I can't and neither could Willie. About a month after this performance, Willie's good buddy Ray Charles was diagnosed with liver cancer. Ray died about a year later. Watch the video. These guys loved each other.

Happy Birthday, Willie.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Hannah Montana Goes PG-13

Sure, my six year-old daughter loves Buddy Holly and The Beatles, but she's also a big Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus fan. And who am I to discourage that? Lord knows when I was her age I logged my share of hours watching The Partridge Family (even as I was trying to memorize all of the songs on Kris Kristofferson's "The Silver Tongued Devil and I" album).

Now, however, Miley's all over the scandal sheets. Seems her parents thought it wise to make her Annie Leibovitz's latest pop tart-of-the-month, and their decision has sent tabloid reporters and cable commentators into a tizzy.

So, what's the father of a six year-old fan to do? Shred my daughter's Hannah Montana t-shirt? Tear up her Hannah Montana school folder?

Hardly. I plan to ignore the fuss because my daughter doesn't read Vanity Fair, and I don't let her surf the internet or watch The O'Reilly Factor.

I also predict that my daughter's Miley Cyrus phase will last about nine more months. Of course, if, during that nine-month period, Miley shows up in a bootleg R. Kelly video, I'll reconsider my position, and my daughter and I will probably have to have a little talk.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Muddy And Me: Two Degrees Of Separation?

I know I'm lucky to have my friend Stevie Doyle (lower left corner of the photo) playing guitar with us on our gig tomorrow night. I was reminded yesterday just how lucky I am when I saw an ad for a gig Stevie is doing next weekend.

He'll be plugging in next Sunday night (May 4) with a couple of Muddy Waters' old bandmates -- drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith and guitarist John Primer -- as well as with Chicago blues greats Carl Weathersby and Jimmy Burns (all pictured with Stevie in the photo above).

It's nice to have talented friends like Mr. Doyle, who will occasionally slum with us music-making lawyers. Of course, Stevie is probably just hedging his bets, figuring that if he's ever named a defendant in a securities-fraud suit or a point-shaving prosecution, he'll need someone to answer his phone calls.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thanks For The Music, Mr. Gaffney

The music world took another hit last week when Chris Gaffney, lead singer of the Hacienda Brothers, passed away from liver cancer. He was 57 years old.

He never enjoyed super-stardom and he never got rich; but he was able to spend most of his life doing something he loved, and he did it well -- whether working as one of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men or leading the Hacienda Brothers.

Hell, he even got to hang with one of my musical heroes, soul legend Dan Penn, who wrote, co-wrote, and produced a number of sides for the Hacienda Brothers. Penn makes a cameo appearance in the video below, supplying some background vocals on "What's Wrong With Right," the title track of the band's 2006 release (Proper American).

Chris Gaffney certainly had soul. And based both upon what I've read about him and what I picked up during the concerts I attended, he seemed to have a pretty good sense of humor, too.

I know he'll be missed.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Jazz Comes To Rogers Park

I was thrilled to learn just a few weeks ago that some arts-minded Chicago entrepreneurs are about to breathe new life into an abandoned movie theater (and one-time vaudeville house) here in Rogers Park by reopening it this September as a state-of-the-art jazz venue.

From the looks of of its website, The Morse Theatre will be quite a place. I look forward to seeing a lot of great shows there.

Of course, operating a profitable jazz venue, even in a city like Chicago, is a mighty tough undertaking. I'd run out of fingers and toes in a hurry if I tried to count the number of jazz clubs that have opened and closed since I started going out to hear the music. (If you're scoring at home that would be since July 1980, when I spent my sixteenth birthday -- with my long-time friend and bandmate Neal Connors -- listening to Dexter Gordon at the now-shuttered Jazz Showcase.)

I wish all the best to Andy McGhee, Devin McGhee, and William Kerpan, the local entrepreneurs who have spent more than three years trying to bring their vision to life.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Household Name, But Only In The Gnahore´ Household

I was excited to hear that Dobet Gnahore´-- an amazing singer/dancer/percussionist from the Ivory Coast -- will hit Chicago on Sunday, July 13, as part of the Chicago Folk & Roots Festival, which takes place every summer in lovely Welles Park.

My friend (and fellow music geek) Tom Morrissey hipped me to Ms. Gnahore´ and her music last year, and I was smart enough to heed Tom's recommendation and spring for some concert tickets.

I even insisted that my teenage daughter attend the September 2007 show with me, because I was anticipating it would be something special.

It was.

My daughter, at this stage in her life, has little interest in acknowledging that she enjoys any music that I like, but even she was blown away by this show. Her quote, upon leaving the theater: "You see a show like that, and you wonder how Britney Spears can be famous."

Later that week, my friend Steve Hochman, a California-based music writer, was trusting enough to heed my recommendation to check out Dobet's show. He, too, was impressed. Check out Steve's review of the Santa Monica show -- he describes the music a lot better than I ever could.

Block out July 13 right now, and you'll be in for a treat.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Downloads And Ringtones

There's a solid chance that my kids -- ages six and sixteen -- will go through life having very few encounters with rotary-dial phones, typewriters, or black-and-white television sets. Technology has largely rendered these devices museum pieces, garage-sale kitsch, or landfill detritus. At the end of the day, however, my kids' lives will be no less rich for having missed out on these products.

But what about record stores?

They're disappearing faster than the women in Drew Peterson's life.

And it saddens me to think that my kids and their friends are probably not going to be able spend quality hours during their teenage years thumbing through racks of LPs and compact discs at the soon-to-be non-existent neighborhood record shop.

I learned an awful lot about music hanging out in good record stores. I loitered, I read liner notes, I chatted with knowledgeable customers and employees, and I watched some great in-store performances. My kids' lives will be a little less rich for not having those same opportunities.

There aren't many great music shops left in this country. If you happen to live in Chicago, make it a point to take your kids to the Jazz Record Mart, 27 E. Illinois, and wander the aisles with them. Explore the racks of records and discs with your kids. Buy something for them. Ask my friend Ron Bierma (the Mart's manager) anything you want to know about jazz, blues, gospel, or R&B. The JRM is a Chicago institution. Enjoy it while it's still around.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The St. Louis Horns: A Decade Of Service

Since 1998, two of my good buddies, Neal Connors (saxophone) and Rob Endicott (trumpet), both lawyers based in the St. Louis area, have continued to humor me by making semi-regular trips to Chicago to blow their horns in my semi-regular bar band. And make no mistake, it's The St. Louis Horns that keep people coming to our shows.

While I'm not yet ready to bestow upon them the bar-band equivalent of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, I do owe them a great deal of thanks.

Why do these guys do it?

Why would Rob, who earned a Master's degree from The Juilliard School before going to law school, continue to make the ten-hour round trip to and from these Chicago gigs? It isn't for the money. And it surely can't be for the "challenge" of playing trumpet lines on tunes like "Domino," "Ring of Fire," and "Take a Letter, Maria"? Let's get serious -- this guy used to play Hummel and Haydn with the Rotterdam Philharmonic.

Why would Neal, who spent seven years kicking around the University of Illinois jazz program, while earning his undergrad and law degrees in Champaign, fill busy weekends blowing over three-chord rock-and-roll tunes, which are all too often in sharp keys?

Why go through all that trouble? You'd have to ask them. But for my money, singer/songwriter John Sebastian nailed it when he wrote, "You do it for the stories you can tell."

Over ten years, we've amassed a lot of them. Neal, Rob, and guitarist Joe Roach (currently on unpaid paternity leave) have hung with me through it all. We've gigged in Japan (courtesy of our federal government), played a private party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and had a chance to record at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. We've also met a lot of great people along the way.

Of course, one of the guys who inspires all of us is Neal's dad, Maurice Connors. He's now 93 years old, but he still plays gigs with a couple of different bands in Chicago's western suburbs.

Will we be so lucky? I certainly hope so.

But whenever our time comes, I can assure you, paraphrasing the late Charlton Heston, that they'll have to pry our instruments "from [our] cold, dead hands."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Two Score And Fourteen Years Ago . . .

Big Joe Turner released "Shake, Rattle And Roll" on Atlantic Records fifty-four years ago today. I'm not sure that popular music has gotten any hipper since then.

Of Batman, Cocaine, and the Chicago Cubs . . .

One of the tunes we've been rehearsing for our April 26 show is a song I've been singing since 1968, when I was four years old. The album off of which I learned that tune was a chart-topping smash. It was also in heavy rotation on my dad's record player in our little apartment in Hillside, Illinois.

The singer was a superstar with his own weekly TV show. Back in 1968, I ranked him right up there with Ernie Banks and Batman. (N.B., I still hold all three in high regard.)

As for the song, I certainly had no idea, back in 1968, what the words meant. And I'm sure my parents never worried that the violent, misogynistic, drug-heavy lyrics could warp my young brain like so much model airplane glue.

In any event, I escaped childhood unharmed -- I think.

Forty years later, however, the landscape has changed. Just as I wouldn't consider putting my kids in a car without seatbelts -- something I never used as a kid -- I also wouldn't think of playing this record while my youngest child (age six) is within earshot. Same holds true, though for slightly different reasons, for a lot of my favorite cuts by Prince, Marvin Gaye, and the Isleys.

The kicker, as far as this particular tune is concerned, is that it wasn't even spawned by the drugs and violence that were everywhere in 1968. No, this song had first been a hit -- for singer Roy Hogsed (pictured above) -- twenty years earlier, back when Harry Truman was in the White House.

Still, it's strange for me to think about the days when I used to walk around our apartment, decked out in my Batman pajamas with the feet in them, singing:

"Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
Went right home and I went to bed
I stuck that lovin' .44 beneath my head"

God bless Johnny Cash.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Life In A "Cover Band"

Hands down, the best account I've read of life in a cover band -- more accurately, in a series of cover bands -- is Mike Lankford's "Life In Double Time: Confessions Of An American Drummer.",M1

Lankford wrote this book about ten years ago, and I have loaned it out (and had to re-purchase it) so many times that I've probably padded his Amazon sales numbers.

Lankford's book chronicles his upbringing and his introduction to music in rural Oklahoma (where he actually met Elvis before Elvis went white-hot), his decision to learn how to play the drums, and his decade-long journey in and out of numerous cover bands. From his initial experiences in sloppy high-school bands to his cross-country exploits with the professional (but troubled) trio Salt & Pepper, it's a highly entertaining read. Check it out.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Return of the St. Louis Horns

On Saturday, April 26, the St. Louis Horns return to the Windy City to join the Blue State crew for three sets of horn-driven, jukebox favorites. All the fun takes place at Candlelite Chicago, 7452 N. Western Avenue, in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood. Showtime is 9:00 p.m., and there is no cover charge.

Joining us on the guitar all night long will be our friend Stevie Doyle, one of Chicago's finest pickers. And if the planets align properly that evening, we might even be able to talk our buddy Gerald McClendon -- one of Chicago's premier soul singers -- into joining us onstage for a couple of tunes.

The schizophrenic setlist will, of course, cover all the bases -- from Elvis and Dion to Cash and Haggard; from The Band and Van Morrison to Huey "Piano" Smith and R.B. Greaves.

Candlelite is a wonderful neighborhood pub and restaurant that serves some of the finest thin-crust pizza in the entire city.

We hope to see you at Candlelite on April 26.