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…)
Finally, before I wander off the point and into a pit, let’s consider Rowan Atkinson as the Devil (a.k.a “Toby”). Go ahead and enjoy it first before going below the fold.
Atkinson is not only one of the best comedians ever, he also has a Master’s degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and as for university degrees: the above-mentioned Brian May has a PhD. in Astrophysics.
Both he and Atkinson are Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Re: (Sir) Brian May. They can be forgiven for making him third banana in a band whose vocalists included Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor. What CAN’T be forgiven is the ascendency of “grunge” around the time of Freddie’s death, which likely nipped Brian’s solo career in the bud.
> 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.
I must disagree.
I’m no musician but I’ve heard improv sessions. A friend of my mother taught the cello and when she visited we had cello music wafting through the house every day. And famous music schools like Chethams have improv sessions.
Now, I won’t argue that it’s much more difficult for an orchestra to improvise, but individual musicians are a different matter.
I think whether or not you can improvise depends on the depth of your gift and how well you’ve cultivated it. I’ve played with a number of musicians that were lost without music or at least chord charts.
I’ve also played with some that were outstanding, “fuggit what key is it in, I’ll catch up” The difference appears to be whether they play for their own enjoyment or entertainment.
My youngest is a music performance major. When she was in high school, she had private lessons from a rather intense Russian dude. I enjoyed taking here there at watching the show. Once he had one of his prodigies with her in the lesson. At some point he said “play happy birthday!”
“You know, happy birthday! Da dada da de roooo….”
Prodigy kid was stuck. No clue. My kid started tentatively, then squeaked it out.
The lightbulb clicked on in her head and she got it.
Long ago, B.I. (Before Internet) I saw an interview on non-cable TV (Yes, Chillun, believe that, too) of Billy Joel and how his song “Piano Man” came to be. He first spoke about practicing the piano at home with his mother doing housework in other parts of the house, when he would stop practicing things and just doodle. Occasionally she’d come into the living room and say, “That was nice. What was it?” He would reply, “Oh, that was Brahms, or Schubert’s such and so.” The next day, he’d forgotten what he’d played the day before, and when she said it was different, he’d say, “This is the second movement.”
In my minimum wage youth I worked with an aspiring jazz saxophone player. He mentioned once that playing music from sheet music was akin to typing.
You never know. This guy gives a power to a classic song that the original never had–
There was a jazz group in the Mid-60’s – led by vibraphonist Gary McFarland – that cut an album called “Soft Samba”, where most of the cuts were Lennon/McCartney songs, all set to a Samba beat. The effect was completely different than listening to The Beatles. In the Late-60’s, they cut a follow-up: Soft Samba Strings.
As much as Jim Stafford clowns around on stage, he can play one mean guitar when he wants to.
My moment was at Brickhouse, a strip-club in Springfield Oregon about twenty years ago.
I was there to help support a pal on her first days exploring a new career.
I was jaw-dropped by one of her accompaniment choices — BLURRY by Puddle Of Mud.
I would enjoy hearing your thoughts:
I’m trying to visualize a stripper/pole routine set to ‘Blurry’ and I’m kind of at a loss. If your friend managed to pull it off (figuratively speaking), more power to her.
“…he fired Bonnet as his vocalist because Bonnet didn’t have long hair”
I remember the big kerfuffle among hair fetishists when members of Metallica cut their hair. Terms like “sell out” were used. When asked about this in an interview James Hetfield replied to the effect of “Damn right we’re sell outs. We sell out every concert we’ve played”.
Not being a big concert goer (finances and living far from any venues when younger, aversion to crowds when older), the actual music has always been more important to me than the image and theatrics of a group. Which leads me to agree with Kim’s assessment here.
PS: THANK YOU for the Brian May clip!!!
Classic Victor Borge………In his “comedy” years, every time he sat down on the bench it was a mystery as to what would come from his fingers – even sometimes to himself.
I grant that (as Dave Olson says) Brian May is having to compete with Freddie and Roger for microphone time. But didn’t May do half the vocals in ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’? And let’s be honest, I could easily see Freddie giving Brian some pointers for voice work.
Speaking of voice work, I finished up Portal 2 (finally). Still vastly amused at Ellen McLain’s depiction of GlaDOS, but it comes as no surprise the lady is a trained operatic soprano.
A comment on Rowan Atkinson’s Toby the Devil skit: he poked fun at the athiests, Christians, and Jews. What about the Muslims?
Yeah, I thought so.
He’s a right funny guy and he can go fuck himself.
I’ve had the privilege of playing with a couple classical musicians – one a lady Russian cellist, and the other a pianist and violist, and both of them could jam and improvise like nobody’s business.
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