Musings On Music History: In Which We Are Joined By A Crow, A Rollins, And A Gabriel

02.11: Michael Jackson’s best backup singer of all time was born on this day in 1962. Know who it is? We’ll give you a hint. Her last name is a type of bird. Gloria Eagle? Nope. Janice Dove? Nope. Cynthia Peacock? Not even close. Okay, one more hint. Her first hit song was called “All I Wanna Do.” That’s right, Sheryl Crow! Anyhoo, Ms.”Former-Lance-Amrstrong’s-Girlfriend-Now-They’re-Just-Friends” Crow started her music career a little later than most, at least in this day and age, but didn’t look back once it began to pick up momentum. Yes, she toured with Michael Jackson (yes, that’s her in the photo) as a backup singer on his Bad World Tour, and, yes, she was a music teacher, jingle writer, and sang for the best cop musical television show ever (Cop Rock, duh!), but once she got going, all of those things became ancient history. We dig on Sheryl because not only does she rock and look hot doing it, but she’s worked really hard to get where she is today. And worked really hard at having fun. But mostly rocking and being hot. Happy birthday, Sheryl!

02.13: What a year, 1961. For Henry Rollins, at least. You see, that year saw Henry Lawrence Garfield take his first breath, and music gained a unique individual. Well, it took a good twenty years for this unique individual to make his mark, but believe us, he definitely did. Rollins joined California punk pioneers Black Flag, who’d gone through a steady stream of singers in its already-four-year career before Rollins joined the band for an impromptu song at one of their shows in New York. In Rollins, who was a huge fan of the group prior to his singing duties (ha, we said duties), they found an intense poetic sensibility uncommon in punk and the stage demeanor of a caged animal, pacing back and forth, waiting to pounce as soon as the music charged up behind him. From 1981 to 1986, Rollins stint in Black Flag tore through every bar, club, and theater they entered, sometimes ending with Henry in a fistfight with one or more audience members. Did we mention he was intense? After Black Flag disbanded, Rollins leapt into a very diverse career, from publisher to actor, from author to activist. He formed his own band, Henry Rollins Band, which recorded and toured from 1987 through 2003, when Henry decided to concentrate on his spoken-word career. Huh, you say? Yeah, Henry’s spoken-word routines kill. They are always a weird, amazingly vital and vitriolic hybrid of stand-up comedy and Shakespearian soliloquies, regaling his audiences with tales from the road and tales from the street. Henry Rollins is truly one of a kind. [more]

02.13: Okay, so, many of you kids out there may only know the group Genesis from Phil Collins’ frontman stint (he was already the drummer) with the band, which proved very fruitful thanks to the monster pop hits “Invisible Touch” and “Land Of Confusion.” And many of you may only know Peter Gabriel from his ubiquitous ’80s video for “Sledghammer” (which is still pretty awesome, btw) or his catchy chorus to “Shock The Monkey,” but his music-life goes back much further than that. So, let’s hop in the Way-Back Machine and go all the way back to 1967. That’s right, rock children, the genesis of Genesis begins in the late ’60s, as a group of young lads decided to join forces, forming a little pop band interested in playing simple, original music. Here’s where we tie our ramblings together. Peter Gabriel helmed the vocal duties for this first incarnation of the band, taking them from a late ’60s pop whatever to an early ’70s prog-rock, theatrical, multi-media monster, complete with masks, props, and visual framing devices to accompany Gabriel’s increasingly complex lyrics and song structures. Why do we bring this up today? Well, it’s Pete’s birthday, as, on this day in 1950, he joined us for the first jaunt on this journey’s we call “life,” and we just wanted to point out that Mr. Gabriel career is much more than goofy videos and is, indeed, attached to one of the most successful bands of all time. Nice work, Peter, and happy birthday, sir.

02.13: A prominent “outlaw country” performer left this world on this day in 2002, when Waylon Jennings died in his sleep from complications brought on by diabetes. What’s “outlaw country,” you ask? Think Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Hank Williams, Jr. Think rebellion against the white-washed “Nashville sound” that dominated country music through much of the ’60s and ’70s. Think long hair, jeans, raw lyrics about drinking, women, and bar fights (not necessarily in that order, but, often, that’s the way it would go). Many credit Waylon with being the originator of the outlaw tag, with his album Ladies Love Outlaws in 1972. Though outlaw country was birthed in Texas and Oklahoma by local performers before Waylon got hold of the sound, it was the use of its tenants by Jennings and Nelson that pushed it into the world at large. At the time, Jennings also managed to wrangle of control of his music from the entrenched record company system that’d been in place for decades, which freed up the artistic process of making records and allowed other performers to write, produce, and record what they wanted, when they wanted. More rock attitude than traditional country, outlaw country and Jennings’ work paved the way for many performers today, including Robert Earle Keen, Hank Williams III, Lucinda Williams, Jenning’s son Shooter, and has given rise to “alternative country,” which is more of a rebranding of “outlaw country” than a new genre unto itself. But that’s just semantics, kids. We’re here to sing the praises of Mr. Waylon Jennings, who escaped death on “The Day The Music Died” when he gave his seat on the ill-fated flight, which also killed Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly (for whom Waylon played bass), to the flu-stricken Big Bopper, and went on to one of the biggest music careers in the latter-half of the 20th century. We miss him, but, as always, are insanely happy to go home tonight, crack open a beer, and listen to “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.”

02.15: One of the most amazingly smooth voices in music was silenced on this day in 1965, when Nat King Cole died from lung cancer, at the much-too-early age of 45. Not only did Cole sing on over 100 charting singles and more than 20 charting albums throughout his 20-year pop career, but he also led a venerable jazz trio, held dear by many jazz aficionados, during the late ’30s and early ’40s. His switch from jazz pianist to silken-voiced pop singer caused much consternation in the tight-knit jazz circles of the era, a time when jazz was coming off the high of the swing era and sliding back into the underground, as former swing era singers (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin) also abandoned their roots and headed into the wide-open waters of the pop world. Nat King Cole, however, was not a jazz singer, having cut his teeth in smoky jazz clubs, tickling 88 keys every night, years before he ever let a song escape from his lungs. His switch from jazz to pop was different than the singers who’d done the same because many considered him a leader in the transition from swing to small-band jazz to bebop. They felt his abandonment of that world a slap in the face, but Nat’s success in the world of pop and popular culture proved he was meant for much greater things. From his hit singles to his hit radio and television show, Cole showed Americans a man who transcended the racial divides of the time, showed Americans that people can live in the same neighborhoods, can perform together, can sit and watch a singer together, no matter the color of their skin. Though, even then, he was criticized by some in the civil rights movement for not doing enough for the cause, for not throwing his weight around as much as they perceived he could have. It seems no matter what he did, someone would find a way to criticize his actions. All we know is that this is both a sad and a happy day. As always, we are sad to remember someone on the day of their death, but we are happy for what they’ve left behind. And Nat King Cole left an amazing legacy. Do some research. Explore his catalog. You will not be disappointed. Nat King Cole is truly unforgettable.

02.16: One of the godfathers of gangsta rap joined us on this day in 1959, when Tracy Lauren Marrow, better known to us as Ice-T, was born in Newark, NJ. Yeah, you read that right. Ice isn’t a South Central native, but that doesn’t make his depictions of life on those streets any less important. He moved to Los Angeles in 7th grade, after his father passed away and three years after his mother had also passed away. Things just got worse when he moved in with an aunt in southern California, as she intended to provide him with structure, whether he wanted it or not. This, of course, didn’t go down too well with Ice, who’d been without much parental guidance for quite a while. He rebelled and found inspiration in the burgeoning California rap scene, as well as the writings of Iceberg Slim, a pimp turned author. After a stint in the Army, Ice-T continued his pursuit of a career in rap, turning his experiences on the streets of South Central and his love of Iceberg Slim’s rough and sobering stories of hustlers and pimps into his own tales of modern gangsters and street violence. That he walked the line between brilliant social commentary and exploitation isn’t lost on us, but we love Ice-T for just being his own man. And for “Colors“.  Whether he is acting on Law and Order: SVU or fronting Body Count (his metal band) or putting out one of the best gangsta rap albums of all time, Power, Ice has always done what he feels like doing and it don’t get much more rock ‘n’ roll than that.

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