Stumbling along the digital highways and byways (a.k.a Teh Intarwebz) the other day, I was reminded of what I call “little-known greatness” in modern music. Typically, this involves a musician or band which are not as well-known as the gods (e.g. Beatles, Genesis, Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant), but who are of astonishing brilliance. Here’s one such example.
In my long-distant yoot, I heard a ballad played at a party which stopped me in my tracks — I actually stopped chatting up a girl to listen to it — and when I asked the DJ the name of the song or the band, he said,, “I dunno who the band is — it’s off a tape I got from a buddy — but I think the song is called Ten Little Indians.”
So the next day I went over to Ye Olde Recorde Barre and looked all over for Ten Little Indians, without any success. Even Neville, the guy behind the counter — a complete encyclopedia of all things pop music — had never heard of it, so I went away frustrated. (Remember, children: in those days there was not only neither Google nor Internet; Sergei Brin hadn’t even been born yet.)
Time passed, and I forgot about Ten Little Indians, as one does. Then about a year later I went to another party, only this party featured a DJ spinning discs instead of playing tapes. (Note to children: ask your grandparents to explain “discs” to you.) And mirabile dictu, that song got played.
Of course, its title wasn’t Ten Little Indians, it was Only One Woman, performed by a spotty-faced teenage Brit duo called The Marbles. The lead singer was a guy named Graham Bonnet (“bonn-ay”) and he was (and is) one of the Little-Known Greats. Here he is as I first heard him back in 1968, and here he is many years later, as the lead singer of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, performing Since You’ve Been Gone.
As an aside, Ritchie Blackmore can best be summarized as “Guitarist: god; human being: complete asshole”, if for no other reason than he fired Bonnet as his vocalist because Bonnet didn’t have long hair, and Blackmore wanted a rock band that looked like a rock band. Needless to say, the band never sounded as good after that. (Ronnie Dio fans can shut up, at this point.)
But it doesn’t end there. Still wandering along the Internet tributaries and branch lines, I happened upon the selfsame Since You’ve Been Gone, only this time performed by Queen’s Brian May and a fantastic backing band.
Who knew that Brian May could sing like that?
We all know that Brian May = guitar god — duh — but as a singer, he can truly be called a Little-Known Great. And to top it all, I think his guitar solo in the above song is better than Blackmore’s, and the backing singers are… phwoarrrr.
And still on the topic of Guitar Gods Who Can Sing, how about Eric Clapton doing Stormy Monday ? (B.B. King apparently called it the best version of the song he’d ever heard.) And of course, Clapton’s guitar solos are a wonder of blues improvisation. Which leads me to my next meandering point.
One of the knocks on classical musicians is that while they are wonderful performers of music, their expertise is limited to written music — i.e. they can’t improvise on the fly. Even Bach’s Goldberg Variations are scripted, so to speak.
Step forward, Victor Borge — whom we all know as a wonderful comedian as well as a brilliant classical pianist. Here he is, playing along with maestro violinist Anton Kontra, providing accompaniment to a song he had never heard before. But it doesn’t end there: not only does Borge improvise the backing, but as the piece progresses, the devilish Kontra tries to trip him up with sudden key-, rhythm- and melody changes; and Borge not only keeps up, but returns the favor. (As one of the commenters puts it: when the lead violinist is sweating at the end…)