I love movies about music/musicians, and I had heard great things about the movie Once, but didn’t get around to seeing it until recently. It’s about a singer/songwriter who performs on the streets of Ireland while working in a vacuum cleaner repair shop by day. He meets a piano player and they collaborate to bring their musical aspirations to life.
The storyline of artists struggling to develop their God-given talents pursue the dream in a world where the deck is stacked against them never gets old for me. It also brings to mind the reality of how committed one must be to overcome those odds. I once asked vocalist Irma Thomas, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” what she did when times in the music business got tough. She stated simply, ” I went out and got a job.” Sometimes it’s that simple, but it’s never easy.
The movie also avoids so many of the typical movie clichés, making it more real and believable. It’s magical in its understated simplicity.
And the storyline mirrors the career of the musician who co-wrote the soundtrack and who played the lead role in the movie, Glen Hansard, who dropped out of school at age 13 to perform on the streets of Dublin and is now a successful songwriter and Academy award winner.
So you say you love music. That’s great. But when time are tough, you must ask yourself, “How committed am I and what am I willing to do to overcome the obstacles in front of me?
Here’s a performance of the Oscar-winning song “Falling Slowly” at the Sundance Film Festival.
Actor Hugh Laurie, star of the hit TV show House, is quite an accomplished musician. For years he admired and emulated New Orleans pianists and their sound – Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint to name a few. He recently traveled to our great city for the first time to see and hear the sights and sounds of the Crescent City first hand, a pilgrimage that culminated in a PBS special/concert and his first album. Laurie collaborated with Vocalist Irma Thomas (The Soul Queen of New Orleans) and the aforementioned Allen Toussaint).
Here’s a brief excerpt that includes a few kind thoughts regarding New Orleans.
“I feel like this is a city that doesn’t fear death. It’s looked death in the eye. Los Angeles on the other hand – everybody’s absolutely terrified. Terrified of getting old, terrified of wrinkles, terrified of dying.
“Music fills the streets and clubs of New Orleans like nowhere else. It’s a city that sings itself to sleep at night, and sings itself up in the morning. I’ve never known a place or people who so massively exceeded my expectations. It is more than I hoped it ever could be, and I hoped for quite a lot. This has been my Jerusalem.”
“Sometimes we focus on physical poverty. There’s also a poverty of hope and of dreams. That’s what music involvement gives low-income children.” (Dudamel)
Now that the new season of American Idol is underway, it’s easy to look for reasons to criticize. Sometimes the focus is more on the exploitation of the dysfunctional, “pitchy” attention seekers more than the contenders, Steven Tyler’s flirtation with teen-aged auditioners is quite creepy, and style sometimes trumps substance. But in the end, there are always a few stories that are genuine and compelling – because of the power of the dream and of the medium.
A daughter sings for her father recovering from cancer, a young man sings for his fiancée, traumatically injured in a car accident prior to their marriage date, and a single mother sings for her special needs child.
Because no outlet for emotions is as powerful, moving, and universally understood as song.
Some days there won’t be a song in your heart. Sing anyway. ~ Emory Austin
The greatest malady facing our culture today is the fact that we seem to value fame more than talent. It’s a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by the explosion of reality TV and the likes of Snookie, Kendra and Hank, American Idol cast-off William “She Bangs” Hung, and the laundry list of dysfunctional characters parading themselves across the screen on a nightly basis. It’s particularly sad when those flashes of stardom flame out, because there’s essentially no talent or substance to fall back on.
And that brings us to the story of Meatloaf. The animated rock/pop vocalist and performer burst onto the music scene in 1977 with the blockbuster album Bat Out of Hell, one of the best-selling albums of all time worldwide. The success of that album made the thought of any follow-up attempt daunting for the overnight music sensation. From the various accounts, it seems that he suffered from a temporary loss of his ability to sing brought on by psychological effects of that newfound stardom. The encore recording attempts were plagued by additional challenges including disagreements with his collaborative partner on B.O.O.H., drug use, and financial woes.
Then the music world changed. In the late 70′s and early 80′s, punk rock shook the music world. Video music brought on the likes of Duran Duran, The Cure, The Human League, Depeche Mode, and a plethora of fashion-focused, synthesizer-based pop stars. Only a few years after achieving blockbuster success, Meatloaf was perceived by record industry executives as being as outdated as the mood ring and the pet rock, (pardon the 70′s references).
But when in doubt, he fell back on his talent. Meatloaf was one of the most dynamic live performers of the 70′s rock era with a powerful voice. He took his larger than life act on the road to small bars and clubs. Meatloaf gave the same exhaustive live performances that he once gave in sold out arenas, and word began to spread. The audiences and venues began to grow, until the late 80′s and 90′s when the recording industry once again took notice. 16 years after the release of B.O.O.H., Meatloaf released Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell which included “I’d Do Anything for Love,” a #1 hit in dozens of countries worldwide.
Venerate people committed to excellence and hard work, and society wins. Applaud shallow fame, and we get what we deserve.
When I interviewed Ellis Marsalis, Jr., the patriarch of the great Marsalis family of jazz, he recalled vividly the music that spoke to him and inspired him to hone his skills as a musician:
“When I was really developing as a piano player, I had one recording that I would play periodically. It was Stratford-Upon-Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio (Oscar Peterson Live at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival). Once I put that on it would let me know immediately where I was. But you see I found that. And everybody who’s serious, they find it. And it’s different for everybody.”
For me and thousands of jazz guitarists, it was Joe Pass. There was none smoother and more melodic in his artistry. Here’s the link to my tribute to Joe Pass at AllAboutJazz.com And here’s Joe in action
Tonight I saw a music video that plays annually on a local news broadcast in New Orleans this time of year, and it brought back to memory a departed musician from my past.
The late Harry Ravain was a “musician’s musician.” A veteran drummer with a great enthusiasm for his craft and for other musicians, Harry was to music what actor Kevin Bacon was to the movies – he had a connection to most every musician who ever passed through the Crescent City, and was respected and beloved by them all.
For the last dozen or so years of his life, Harry played with Benny Grunch and the Bunch, a legendary New Orleans band known for their colloquial tunes that pay tribute to nuances of life in the Crescent City. In 2006 I started on a quest to realize a lifetime dream and finally record a music CD (one of my “bucket list” items) with talented musicians who could bring a few of my songs (and a few interpretations of others) to life. A mutual musician friend referred me to Harry.
In 2006 and again in 2007 Harry laid down the drum tracks for the CD, perhaps his last recorded work. Later that year, Harry was diagnosed with cancer that ultimately claimed his life in 2009. It is my regret that I didn’t complete the project until after his death, but I was gratified that I had the opportunity to work with him and capture his work for others to enjoy. Harry’s energy and enthusiasm for music and the recording process made the experience pure joy.
If you’d like to hear Harry’s work, here’s a free .mp3 download of one of the tracks entitled “City Soldier,” a tribute to the street performers that make New Orleans a unique and wonderful place to stroll on a sunny afternoon.
Here’s Harry (in red shirt and black vest) in “Ain’t Dere No More,” a video from Benny Grunch & the Bunch:
In 1985, David Lee Roth’s recording of “Just a Gigolo” hit the Billboard top 40. While many of my friends who grew up in the era of music video considered it a new song, there was nothing new about the song if you grew up in an Italian-American family in New Orleans.
Louis Prima was one of the most dynamic performers of his era, and his 1950′s Vegas show was a favorite stop of many of the celebrities of the day, many of whom rose to greater levels of fame and success. But they realized that Louis Prima was one of the most dynamic musicians in the business, and he had a rare gift. No performer exuded the joy of playing music like Louis and his band (The Witnesses led by sax player Sam Butera).
My fellow Sicilian-American, New Orleans native would have been 100 years old today. His son Louis Prima Jr. currently performs a tribute show to his dad. The music of Louis Prima has been rediscovered by new audiences through remakes by David Lee Roth, Brian Setzer, and other artists. His music has also been re-discovered and utilized by TV commercial and film producers.
Prima’s success was a great source of pride in my family growing up, and it was only later in life that I began to understand why. Here’s one my favorite (thought somewhat lesser known) Louis Prima songs, “Banana Split for My Baby.” Happy Birthday, Louis.
At the age of 19, Melody Gardot was struck by an SUV while riding a bicycle in a nearly fatal accident. In this interview, Melody discusses her amazing story of how music therapy faciliated her recovery, and ultimately led to a career as a world-renowned recording artist on the Verve recording label.
The interview is conducted by Craig M. Cortello, The “Business Musician” for a series of podcasts entitled Potential of Music that illuminated the benefits of music and music education.
I heard a song on the radio by the band Styx last night, and I was reminded of the episode of the VH-1 series Behind the Music that told the story of the rise and eventual break-up of the band. It was fascinating. The rift between the band’s de facto leader Dennis DeYoung and the rest of the band eventually broke the band apart. I’m not trying to pick on Styx – it’s a fairly common story in the world of music.
It’s amazing how often egos get on the way of the music when groups become famous. At some point you would think the members of the band would sit down and say, “You know we’ve been given talent (not always the case in pop/rock music, but continuing on…), the great fortune of commercial success, and we get paid to do what we love. We should put our differences aside and get on with it.”
If you’re a musician, you’ve been given a gift, and you have an obligation to use it in a way that helps others experience the joy of music.
What are you doing with your gift?
“Throughout my career, if I have done anything, I have paid attention to every note and every word I sing – if I respect the song. If I cannot project this to a listener, I fail.”
- Frank Sinatra
I sometimes say (JOKINGLY) that growing up in an Italian-American Catholic family, there are 3 almighties – God, the Pope, and Frank Sinatra. I must say that growing up as a rock star wannabe guitar player in the 70′s, it wasn’t until later that I began to fully understand the brilliance of Sinatra as an artist. Frank was more or less like a favorite uncle to me – always a part of every family gathering and everyone was always happy when they heard him fill the room. His rise to fame and his fighter mentality became a symbolic source of pride to generations of Italian-American families, many of whom experienced discrimination for generations after their families immigrated to this country.
Every vocalist should be so lucky as to have one or two signature songs in their career. Frank had dozens. In some circles the term artist is reserved for those who compose music. Frank destroyed that myth. His ability to take great American songs and make them his own through brilliant phrasing, interpretation, and nuance was revolutionary in 20th century music.
Here’s a link to a Charlie Rose broadcast of an interview with John Lahr, author of “Frank Sinatra: The Artist and the Man,” followed by a panel discussion in honor of Frank Sinatra – a candid discussion that covers his talent, his influence, his life, his flaws, and his legacy.
Here’s Frank at his stylistic best – performing one of his most memorable torch songs, “One for My Baby (And Another One for the Road)”