The 100

Let’s face it:  Rolling Stone  magazine was always awful.  I think it was them Frank Zappa was talking about when he characterized their writing as “people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, aimed at people who can’t read.”  (I still miss Frank, a lot, as much for his intellect as for his music.)

RS‘s latest attempt at a “greatest” list (of singers) is a typical example:  muddled, ignorant and open to ridicule.

The muddle is easy:  they attempted to combine several genres of singing — rock, r&B, blues etc. — but while there may be some crossover in those particular ones, it falls completely on its face if you try to include people like Sinatra and Mel Torme, especially when it comes to ranking  the singers.  The muddle is also ignorant of actual vocal quality — and even worse if one tries to include “iconic” as part of it.  There are singers of extraordinary quality (such as Paul Rodgers of Free/Bad Company) who don’t have iconic tonality, and “ordinary” singers of limited range (like Ozzy Osbourne) who almost define an entire genre.  You can’t attempt to rank Rodgers and Ozzy against each other because they are two totally different singers, albeit in more or less similar genres of music.  Now rank Rodgers against Aretha Franklin, which the hapless Stoners did.  It is, as they say, to laugh.  (And by the way:  any compendium list of 100 singers which does not include Ian Gillan of Deep Purple or Steve Marriot of Humble Pie — to name just a couple which caught, or rather didn’t catch my eye —  is fatally flawed.)

Each genre of music requires a different kind of voice, and very few singers can cross over without failing.  And a singer’s inclusion in whatever genre is horribly personal, in any event.  (In the “jazz crooners” club, for example, Harry Connick Jr. is an infinitely-better singer than Sinatra, but without Sinatra there would likely be  no jazz crooners club.  YMMV.)

So Rolling Stone should have broken up the list into genres, just for starters, with the first being the aforementioned “iconic”voices — those which defined the genre — and then some attempt at vocal quality if they’re to be ranked at all.

I’m not going to do that, at least, not today.  But here’s an example of ten of my favorite Rock vocalists in no special order, just as I think of them:

Robert Plant (Zep)
Joe Cocker
Paul Rodgers (Free, Bad Company)
Cilla Black
Graham Bonnet (Marbles, Rainbow)
Stephen Stills
David Bowie
Freddie Mercury
Ann Wilson (Heart)
Ian Gillan (Deep Purple)

And just for the hell of it, ten from R&B/soul, likewise unranked:  

Otis Redding
Wilson Pickett
Aretha Franklin
Joe Tex
Tina Turner (who could equally have been classified under Rock)
Al Green
Ella Fitzgerald
Sam Moore
Lionel Ritchie
Etta James

And both lists could change tomorrow.

Friday Night Music: The Hogwash Interlude

As I may have mentioned before, the vast preponderance of my Army time was spent as a draftee in the South African Defence Force, as a musician in the Entertainment Group, actually a small unit of some sixty personnel in the Permanent Force (PF), but augmented by the addition of a few draftee National Servicemen (NSMs) usually, like myself, having been professional musicians before being drafted — Trevor Rabin of Yes  was an alum, a couple years before I arrived.

There was a Big Band, managed by the unit’s Commanding Officer Maj. George Hayden and staffed almost exclusively by PF musicians, and was of astonishing virtuosity and quality — mostly older men, many of them recording stars of an earlier era, they performed Glenn Miller-type material and played concerts all over the country.  Sometimes the concerts would feature solo artists, singers, violinists and classical guitarists, most of these being NSMs who’d been sent there after completing their basic training (boot camp).

Then there also were a few dance bands which played mostly popular music of all kinds, whether Top Ten hits, country music or Afrikaans Boeremusiek, “sakkie-sakkie”  as we irreverently called it (here’s an example).

And then there was Hogwash.

(yes, that’s Yer Humble Narrator on the left, age 24)

We were thrown together one Friday night because some Army unit was having a dance and all the Entertainment Group steady bands were already booked — I mean, we found out at 3pm that we would be playing at 8pm, and a two-hour drive to the venue lay between.  A frantic scramble followed, to get some band equipment together  — only I had brought my own gear into camp, so everyone else had to content themselves with equipment that none of the other bands wanted.  At least it all functioned, more or less.

We were saved by the fact that we were all good musicians — the others, to be frank, quite a lot better than I — and fortunately, our keyboard player Boze knew the lyrics and music to a jillion popular songs, so the rest of us just followed him along.  I knew a bunch more, of the Creedence Clearwater- and early rock ‘n roll genres, so we busked our way through five hours of music — and enjoyed the experience so much that we decided to make the band a permanent one (or at least for the remaining time of our draft).  We found an empty practice room, and set about putting together a repertoire that was astonishing in its variety (as you will see below).  And because our whole job was to play music, we played all day and every day, five days a week — sometimes taking two or more days to master a complex song.  We played gigs at military bases all over South Africa and, to our great joy, at forward combat bases in the “Operational Area” of South West Africa (later Namibia).  And we rocked.  We were better than a lot of professional club house bands, all but the drummer could sing, and harmonies became our stock-in-trade:  nobody  could sing with us, not even the pros.  As we already had a good list of oldies and party songs, we could concentrate on playing stuff that we wanted to play, and which made us all better musicians.

Hogwash was together for just under eighteen months, but it was quite honestly one of the happiest times of my life.  We had no responsibilities and nothing else to do but play, and play, and play — and when we weren’t playing music, it was like being in Monty Python, with wicked humor, outrageous behavior and general mischief in abundance.  (We discovered, for example, that “gronsk” was not a word, but a letter  — the first letter of a magic word.)

Here’s some of the music.

The Fez (Steely Dan) — played note-perfect, as we did a couple other Dan songs

Who Loves You (4 Seasons) — ooooh those harmonies

Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (Alan Parsons Project) — we played several Alan Parsons songs, and loved them all

Lazy (Deep Purple) — we played this version, not the indulgent live one

Breezin’ (George Benson) — smooth jazz, baby

Fantasy (Earth Wind & Fire) — funky (well, the way we played it, anyway)

China Grove (Doobie Brothers) — and a whole bunch of other Doobies

One Chain (Santana) — and a couple others by Carlos

I Wish (Stevie Wonder) — tough bass part and complicated backup vocals… I sweated bricks playing this one;  thanks a bunch, Stevie

Jive Talkin’ (Bee Gees) — and all their other disco songs;  hey, it was 1978

I Just Wanna Make Love To You (Foghat) — hair band music, even though we had no hair

…and the song which we played in our very first impromptu gig, and never stopped playing thereafter because we loved it, and because Boze sang it better than Garfunkel:

I only Have Eyes For You (Art Garfunkel) — best version of this song ever recorded

Here we are playing at some dismal Army camp or other:

Sadly, although we’d planned on staying together and playing professionally after the Army service was complete, Boze decided that he didn’t want to play pro.  Without him, the whole thing fell apart.  “Grundelstein” the vocalist quit music altogether and went into the hotel management business.  I rejoined Atlantic Showband (believe me, it was no hardship) and played with them from 1979 until I emigrated in 1986.  “Bee” the guitarist and Franco the drummer went on to play for two of the most well-known club bands in South Africa (Circus and Ballyhoo, respectively, for those who might know what I’m talking about).

Not playing pro with these guys is one of my greatest disappointments in my musical career.  I miss them all still.

Friday Night Music

Atlantic Show Band didn’t do much in the way of 50s-era rock ‘n roll, I think because that 12-bar stuff was relatively easy to play — and as musicians who grew up (musically speaking) more in the Beatles / Stones era, the 50s were “old” music, so it was kinda infra dig.  Still, we did play quite a lot — but when we got sick of them, we finally just combined parts of all of them into a 20-minute medley, which never failed to bring the house down.  Here are those that I can remember:

Johnny B. Goode — Chuck Berry  (LOL one night some Afrikaner came up to us when we’d just finished this song, and begged us to stop playing “that Kaffir music”.  So we played it again, “by request”.)

Jailhouse Rock — Elvis Presley (the opening bars of this song filled the dance floor every time we played it — everybody knew what was coming)

Jenny Jenny — Little Richard (I sang this as a heterosexual male, as opposed to Little Richard, who didn’t)

Time Is Tight — Booker T and the MGs (how could it fail?  Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and Booker T’s Hammond organ, baby!)

Shake Rattle & Roll — Elvis Presley (we used to take it in turns to sing this one, to see who could do the worst / most cheesy Elvis impersonation)

Blueberry Hill — Fats Domino (another dance-floor filler)

Whole Lotta Shakin’ — Jerry Lee Lewis  (I swear, Drummer Knob fell asleep while playing this song one night, and he wasn’t drunk either)

Good Night Sweetheart — Sha Na Na / The Spaniels (we combined the best of both versions into our own, and this was our “quiet” end-of-gig closer, when not doing the Kiki Dee thing)

Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight — Fleetwood Mac (we sounded better, with added “awop-do-wop, awop-bop-do-wop” harmonies. Sometimes, when we were drunk and the crowd was rough, we’d substitute “Cock-sucker, mother-mother fucker” for the doo-wop.  It was the Seventies.)

Next week: the Hogwash Interlude.

Friday Night Music

From a musician’s perspective, the South Africa of my youth — that would be White South Africa — was very similar to the southern states of Murka, in that they loved  country music.  Demographically, White South Africa outside the cities was largely rural in character, and I think that other than cowboy hats and stitched boots, those people had more in common with the American South than, say, New Yorkers of the Manhattan persuasion.

So we had a lot  of country music in our repertoire when not playing in and around Johannesburg — and sometimes even then.  Here’s a sample:

Mr. Bojangles — Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (killed two birds with one stone by playing this song:  country, and  a waltz)

If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body — Bellamy Brothers (cheesy as hell — but man, people loved this song, as they did the next one)

Kiss You All Over — Exile (note: for the time — mid-1970s — the lyrics for this and the previous song were unbelievably suggestive.  Sometimes I still miss that innocence.)

Lying Eyes — Eagles (I know, some would say the Eagles weren’t a country band;  I would suggest that before Joe Walsh joined them, they were.  Another crowd-pleaser, this one:  I think we performed it every time we played outside a club.)

Sunday Morning Coming Down — Kris Kristofferson (and by the way, our guitarist Martin had a MUCH better voice than Kristofferson:  pure velvet)

It’s A Heartache — Bonnie Tyler (I know, she’s a Brit;  but the song is pure Nashville.  And I used to sing it, because I could — and still can — do that raspy-voice thing like Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker.)

Stranger In My House — Ronnie Milsap (his version is a little too  country;  we hardened it up into a rock song.  By the way:  I saw Milsap live after I came over to the U.S., and to this day I think he’s the greatest percussive pianist ever.)

Love Is In The Air — John Paul Young (everyone in the band hated this thing — and everyone in the audience loved  it.  Talk about selling out…)

Next week:  old-time rock ‘n roll.

Friday Night Music

Last week was the intro to this series.  Now, as threatened, I include for your entertainment a few of the songs sung by our sometime-vocalist Jill:

Bette Davis Eyes — Kim Carnes (pure sex appeal, this one)

Angel of the Morning — Juice Newton (our arrangement kicked ass — once again, we turned a country ballad into a rock song)

Midnight Confessions — Grassroots (curiously, the lyrics make more sense when sung by a woman)

Turn Me Loose — Loverboy (band favorite, this one, and she killed the vocals)

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart — Elton John & Kiki Dee (pure fun, and Jilly had a better voice than Kiki, by a country mile)

Black Velvet — Alannah Miles (rolling blues, baby)

Stop Dragging My Heart Around — Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty (duet with lead guitarist Kevin)

I Got The Music In Me — Kiki Dee (our favorite closer for just about every gig we ever played — and LOL we caused no end of trouble once;  we were backing a rather snotty female cabaret singer who performed this as her “show-stopper”, but after she’d finished her set, we closed the show much later by reprising the song — and Jilly blew her off the stage.  We never backed her again, but it was worth it.)

For some reason, I don’t have any pics of Jill on stage, which is a great shame.  As I recall, she quit the band because her boyfriend got jealous.  An even bigger shame.