David Byrne’s American Utopia
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Star: David Byrne
Director: Spike Lee
Streaming on HBO. Reviewed at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
Is there any music video that screams “1980s” more loudly than Talking Heads’ primal “Once in a Lifetime?” There’s bespectacled, bow-tied frontman David Byrne, circa 1980, a cross between Clark Kent and Pee Wee Herman, stiffly spazzing to the song’s complex rhythms, singing of America’s macabre pursuit of material comforts, making a hatchet of his left hand while whacking away at his right forearm wailing, “This is not my beautiful house!”
Forty years later, here is Byrne again, standing on the stage of Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, his eyes still piercing but a tad more haunted; not quite as willowy but, despite approaching 70, still remarkably bendy.
And he’s still singing about what’s important to us — while reminding us what should be important — performing nonstop with a troupe of 11 singer/dancer/musicians with enough energy to power all those garish electrical advertisements that line New York’s Great White Way, just outside the theater’s doors.
Talking Heads broke up about 30 years ago, and Byrne went on to remain an influential singer/songwriter. His most recent album, American Utopia, became the basis of this 2019 stage show, which also incorporated several classic songs from his Talking Heads days. Filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) was so blown away by the show’s minimalist staging, elaborate choreography, and driving rhythms, he approached Byrne about bringing it to the screen — not as a straight-on filmed stage show but as an extended music video that commented on the music even while documenting it.
The result is a film with so many layers of brilliance — musical, dramatic, and cinematic — that it’s difficult, in a delightful way, to focus on any one element at any one time.
Barefoot and exhaustingly intense, Byrne is a force of nature, his face set like flint on exploring the secret corners of the human psyche. For “Here,” the opening song, he literally holds a plastic model brain in his hand, singing about its unfathomable intricacies (“Here is a region,” he sings, “that is seldom used.”)
The live audience (filmed, of course, before COVID-19 emptied New York’s theaters) is predictably ecstatic, but this filmed version creates an uncanny sense of intimacy, despite the public venue. Lee, who’s dabbled in music documentaries before, has created one of the most immersive concert films since — well, since Jonathan Demme captured the ethereal essence of Talking Heads in 1984’s Stop Making Sense. At times Lee pushes disturbingly close to Byrne’s evocative face; at others he pulls back to encompass the large cast dancing, marching, writhing, playing instruments and, most powerfully, standing absolutely still. He even lifts his camera to the theater’s fly space, focusing down on the performers like a latter-day Busby Berkeley.
Most powerfully, filmmaker Lee takes essential moments to break through the walls of the Hudson Theatre to the troubled world outside. Although American Utopia was filmed in late 2019, Lee cuts away from Byrne’s urgent performance of the protest song “Hell You Talmbout” to confront us with the ghosts of 2020: photos of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
At those moments, the title of American Utopia seems distressingly ironic. But happily, Byrne insists, all is not lost. There is still uplifting music. There are still those synapses of compassion that fire through our brains. And there is still that spark of hope that we can, despite ourselves, make a better world.
Same as it ever was.
Featured image: David Byrne’s American Utopia (Courtesy of TIFF)
Bruce Springsteen’s The River is an album obsessed with the idea of legacy. Released in 1980, the two-record set was a grand ode to the sound of classic 1950s and 60s rock, landing on store shelves in the midst of an economic recession that made the optimism of yesterday seem more and more distant. Beyond aesthetics, the album’s lyrics explore the effects that family and birthplace can have on someone’s life, a personal legacy of sorts that is passed on from generation to generation. So while 2020 is a year full of E Street fanfare (including the upcoming release of Springsteen’s 20th studio album Letter to You later this month), looking back at The River and its own legacy is perhaps the most quintessential Bruce experience possible during our current moment of quarantine.
1980 was a crossroads of sorts in Springsteen’s early career. 1975’s Born to Run was a breakout success (landing Springsteen on the cover of both Newsweek and Time in the same week), but a series of contract disputes prevented the release of any new music in the wake of the album’s release. So although ‘the Boss’ would eventually reach ridiculous levels of stardom with 1984’s Born in the USA, the years after Born to Run’s release were permeated by a feeling of unfulfilled potential. The promise of escape offered in the lyrics of Thunder Road (“It’s a town full of losers, and we’re pulling out of her to win”) now rung hollow.
Yet Springsteen was not devoid of purpose during this transitionary period. In the time between album releases, the E Street Band secured its reputation as a prolific live act, consistently touring around the country at a litany of small venues and college campuses. This led to the widespread recording and distribution of album bootlegs (many of which have since been officially released), which kept the band relevant as they continued to perfect their potent mixture of garageband and operatic rock. It was also a period of great lyrical productivity, as Springsteen continued to write songs even though he was unable to release any. After three years of contract dispute, the album drought finally ended in 1978 with the release of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Yet even though the album was met with both critical and commercial success, it came nowhere close to generating the same amount of buzz as Born to Run three years prior. It also came nowhere close to releasing all of the songs that Springsteen had written. A follow up to Darkness on the Edge of Town (titled The Ties that Bind) was finished and delivered to the record company, but Bruce scrapped the project right before its release. Instead, he set his sights on an album that could do justice to the vast catalogue of songs he had on reserve and capture the live sound that the E Street Band had been honing throughout the decade. And so, the idea for a two-record set was born.
The River was finally released on October 17, 1980, with a robust 20-song tracklist to back up Springsteen’s grand ambitions. The first track, The Ties that Bind, is a bold reintroduction to the E Street Band, filled to the brim with glorious 12-string guitars and a triumphant saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons. Yet despite the self-assured rock and roll of the E Street Band, the frustration of the past five years is almost immediately evident in Springsteen’s lyrics. He sings, “You been hurt and you’re all cried out you say. You walk down the street pushing people out of your way.” Throughout many of the uptempo songs on the album — Sherry Darling, Jackson Cage, Two Hearts, Out in the Street — these same themes of hurt and frustration are present, forming a sharp juxtaposition with the mostly pop sound of the band’s arrangements.
Springsteen, however, was not the only artist grappling with such themes at the start of the new decade. Acts like The Clash and The Ramones were popularizing the pop-punk sound throughout the later half of the 70s, articulating a general sentiment of discontent with both the culture and sound of mainstream music. The River was released in the midst of this larger moment and is certainly worth viewing as a part of it, but while Springsteen took on many of the same themes as these new acts, he did so by dressing them in the garments of yesteryear. The E Street Band’s sound on The River is an amalgamation of the styles that defined rock’s past, jumping between the Beatles, Chuck Berry, and even some Pete Seeger for good measure. It is an album that explores the 1950s, 60s, and 70s from the position of someone living in 1980, using music as a way to trace back to the root cause of their personal and political problems.
A 1950’s, B-Movie aesthetic is present in many aspects of The River’s design, ranging from the bold font on the album’s cover to the marquee-ready titles of certain songs (Point Blank screams low-budget crime flick). It was not the first time that Springsteen had tapped into this certain breed of nostalgia — the titles for Thunder Road and Born to Run were both themselves derived from forgotten B-pictures — yet the songs on The River carried with them a new sense of dread. In the aforementioned Point Blank, the romance narratives of Hollywood are subverted, giving way to a practical melancholy that was more suitable for the Carter recession. Springsteen sings, “I was gonna be your Romeo, you were gonna be my Juliet. These days you don’t wait on Romeos, you wait on that welfare check.” Similarly, Hungry Heart (the only hit off the album, which impressively broke the top 10) is a comedic take on 1950’s pop music, setting the story of a deadbeat dad to the happy-go-lucky beat of classic doowop. Adding even further to the irony of the song, Springsteen had originally written it for The Ramones, one of the pop-punk bands that The River was a response to.
Throughout The River, the Peter Pan fantasy of rock and roll is forced to grow up and face the economic realities of 1980, a painful yet inevitable process that is most clearly seen in the album’s title track. This theme of inevitability is clear from the song’s first line: “I come from down in the valley, where Mister when you’re young, they bring you up to do, like your daddy done.” What ensues is a haunting tale about an unplanned pregnancy, a dead end job, and an unhappy couple that is unable to reconcile their happy memories with the grave nature of their current situation. At the song’s climax, the narrator asks, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” It is a question that was applicable to many people’s lives in 1980, including Springsteen’s. While the cover of Born to Run had an optimistic, leather-jacket wearing Bruce looking towards the future, the cover of The River has him staring blankly forward, coming to terms with the broken promises of music, movies, and politics.
The River — both the album and the song — is not only about cultural legacies though, but also the personal legacies that family and relationships create. Bruce Springsteen’s fraught relationship with his father is a topic present across his discography, yet in his more recent work (including his memoir, broadway show, and 2019’s fantastic Western Stars) he has acknowledged that an undiagnosed mental illness was at the root of this issue. Although such illness is never directly confronted, tracks like I Wanna Marry You, Fade Away, and Stolen Car all explore how the spectre of Springsteen’s father hangs heavy over the other relationships in his life (a theme that is also at the heart of 1987’s Tunnel of Love). However, the effect of this relationship is most explored on the heartbreaking track Independence Day. Gently driven forward by organist Danny Federici’s beautiful melody, the song plays out as a lullabye of sorts, framed around a late night conversation between a father and a son. However, the roles are reversed, and now the son is telling the father to go to sleep. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that the son is ready to leave town and start his own life, but he knows that his father will both resent him and be proud of him for leading the life that he was never able to. The narrator is forced to compromise his own dreams for the future with the reality of what those dreams will cost, a theme that rings true throughout the album. Springsteen sings, “So say goodbye it’s Independence Day. Papa I know the things you wanted that you could not say. But won’t you just say goodbye it’s independence day. I swear I never meant to take those things away.”
Across its expansive run time, the characters on The River are all forced to make similar compromises, balancing their hope for the future with an understanding of the legacies that they are subject to. However, this compromise is not always hopeless. On the penultimate track of the album, Drive All Night, Springsteen tells the tale of a loving man who is selflessly dedicated to buying his love a pair of shoes in the middle of the night, despite the snow, wind, rain, and strangers on the edge of town who might impede his journey. Coming in at a whopping 8 minutes and 27 seconds, it is the album’s longest track by far, featuring solos from almost every member of the E Street Band, all recorded live during a single take. It has the grandeur and scope of a perfect finale.
Yet even still, the haunting quality of The River persists. The album’s final track, Wreck on the Highway, is the story of a man who could very well be the same character from Drive All Night. While driving on a dark road, the man comes across the wreckage of another car and helps bring the other driver to safety. When the man returns home to the safety of his family, he is still restless, knowing that on any other night he could have been the one in that accident. The song slowly fades out, leaving both the character and the listener anxious as to what the next day holds, walking a fine line between hard earned happiness and the randomness of tragedy.
Although The River landed Springsteen a hit with Hungry Heart, it still was not the star-making moment he and the E Street Band had been waiting for (for that, they only had to wait until the ridiculous success release of Born in the USA four years later). The two-record set also only made a small dent into the vast catalogue of songs that Springsteen had written during his contract disputes (the box set version of The River released in 2015 included an additional 22 songs, all of which were already written by the time of the album’s original release). Yet even though the album did not quite meet Springsteen’s own grand ambitions, it is still a remarkable work whose expansive scope and sharp criticism act as a wonderful document of the cultural, political, and personal circumstances that surrounded its release. 40 years down the road, The River continues to excite and inspire, exploring the legacies that informed its own creation in a way that still feels insightful in 2020. It offers a nuanced message that delicately balances between hope and realism, which — along with its 83 minute run time — makes it the perfect Springsteen album to play on repeat throughout the long days of quarantine.
Featured image: Anthony Correia / Shutterstock
Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Director: Mary Wharton
Stars: Jimmy Carter, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Larry Gatlin
In theaters and virtual theater video on demand
Bill Clinton may have been the first U.S. President born after World War II, but as this tuneful, nostalgic documentary reminds us, it was Jimmy Carter who first harnessed the energy of rock and roll to catapult himself to the highest office in the land.
James Earl Carter, born in 1924, went to war to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey — but he was a Georgia boy whose childhood soundtrack was dominated by the gospel tunes he sang in church and the barn dance music that crackled through the air from the Grand Ole Opry.
By the time he ran for President in 1976, Carter’s musical tastes had already morphed into a love of country-tinged rock and roll, and he brought that sensibility to his campaign.
In fact, if not for his rockabilly roots, the film suggests that Carter might not have become president at all. Director Mary Wharton — a long-time producer/director for PBS’s American Masters series — explores how, in the early days of his campaign, the candidate would come up with desperately needed cash simply by calling on the likes of The Marshall Tucker Band or the Allman Brothers to drop what they were doing to mount a fundraising concert.
“We’d have a concert on Saturday,” a former campaign worker recalls, “and use that money to buy advertising on Wednesday.”
As Carter himself tells Wharton, “It was the Allman Brothers who put me in the White House.”
The film makes clear that Carter was no simple opportunist; his love of music infused every aspect of his life, from the spiritual to the political. Bob Dylan marvels that on their first meeting in the White House, Carter recited many of the songwriter’s lyrics, weaving them into a personal and religious testimony.
“I realized my songs had reached into the establishment world,” Dylan tells the camera. “It made me a little uneasy.”
After his arrival in the White House, Carter filled those historic halls with music of all sorts: giants of classical, rock, gospel, and jazz all took their turns on the stage. One of the film’s most disarming passages involves trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie coaxing the prez, who famously got his start as a peanut farmer, into sort-of singing an awkward rendition of “Hot Peanuts.” Carter hosted the likes of Herbie Hancock, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton, Cher (who drank from her finger bowl) and Willie Nelson (who came to D.C. straight from incarceration after a drug bust in Jamaica).
If music enlivened Carter’s White House years, it also saw him through his darkest hours as president: At the height of the Iran hostage crisis he closed himself into his office and listened to Willie Nelson sing gospel songs.
In the end, the Carter/music connection was not enough to save his presidency. Still, there’s the sense here that it is music that continues to feed his soul — and has helped him become our greatest ex-president.
“I think music is the best proof,” Carter concludes, “that people have (at least) one thing in common, no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.”
Featured image: Jimmy Carter with Willie Nelson, 1980 (Credit: Courtesy The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)
It’s hard to decide exactly where to start with Garth Brooks. That he’s the best-selling solo albums artist in the history of the United States? That only The Beatles have sold more albums? What about the fact that he’s the only artist to sell 10 million copies each of nine different albums? Then there’s the pick-up truck full of Grammys, American Music Awards, and gold and platinum records, and that’s before you get to the swelling list of Hall of Fame inductions. He is, after all, the youngest person to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. And even though his debut album was a hit, Brooks truly ascended to next-level stardom with his second effort, No Fences, which hit stores 30 years ago this week.
If you knew Troyal Garth Brooks in high school, you might be forgiven for thinking of him as an athlete rather than a music guy. Born in 1962 in Oklahoma, Brooks would stand out in track and field, baseball, and football. He even went to Oklahoma State University on a track scholarship, specializing in javelin. But the other side of Brooks was that his mother was Colleen McElroy Carroll, a country singer who had been signed to Capitol Records and performed on television shows like Ozark Jubilee. His family held weekly talent shows that all the kids had to take part in; consequently, Brooks learned to play banjo and guitar. At OSU, his roommate, Ty England, played guitar and would soon become Brooks’s sideman.
Brooks graduated OSU in 1984 with an advertising degree, and the following year he began to play the local circuit. His influences came from a wide spectrum, including rock acts like KISS and singer-songwriters like James Taylor. But George Strait and Chris LeDoux in particular were the artists that drove Brooks toward country. Once he got connected in Nashville via entertainment lawyer Ron Phelps, Brooks was on his way toward his first deal.
Brooks put out his self-titled debut, Garth Brooks, in 1989 on his mom’s old label, Capitol. In his first taste of crossover success, Brooks saw his #2 country album also hit #13 on the Top 200.He wrote or co-wrote the first three singles from the record, all of which went Top 10 country, with “If Tomorrow Never Comes” hitting #1. The fourth single was written by Tony Arata; it was called “The Dance.” The #1 hit made Brooks a star on country television with its emotional video that paid tribute to late public figures from the towering (Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy) to the lesser-known (bull rider Lane Frost, singer Chris Whitley). Brooks still considers the worldwide hit to be his favorite song from his own catalog.
However, Brooks’s second effort just a year later would turn out to be landmark not just for him, but for country as a whole. No Fences dominated the Country Albums chart with 23 straight weeks at #1 while also hitting #3 on the Billboard 200. It remains his best-selling individual album, with 17 million copies shipped in the U.S. alone. The album produced four #1 singles (“Friends in Low Places,” “Unanswered Prayers,” “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House,” “The Thunder Rolls”) and a #7 (“Wild Horses”). In particular, “Friends in Low Places” became a phenom unto itself; after a four-week run at #1, it ended up winning both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Awards for Single of the Year. So pervasive was the song that year that it was a Top 40 hit on the U.K. charts while making the Top 100 on the Eurochart. It now routinely appears on lists of “Best Drinking Songs.”
In stark contrast to “Friends,” “The Thunder Rolls” sparked enormous controversy when Brooks delivered the music video. Composed by Brooks and Pat Alger, the original version of the song had four verses; the song is about a cheating husband, and the last verse suggests that the scorned wife shoots him. Ultimately, the fourth verse was omitted when the song was recorded for the album. However, Brooks felt that he had the opportunity to make a statement, and the moody music video was constructed to make a point about domestic violence. Brooks even portrayed the cheating, abusive husband himself. Almost immediately upon release, TNN (The Nashville Network) and CMT (Country Music Television) banned the video, citing violence and a reluctance to dive into social issues as reasons. VH-1 took up the video a few days later, and Capitol was deluged with requests for the video from alternate venues. The clip was eventually named the CMA Video of the Year and was nominated for a Grammy.
Brooks didn’t let the iron cool before striking again. Ropin’ the Wind shipped four million copies in advance of its September 1991 release. The artist would also soon benefit from the introduction of SoundScan, a new sales tracking system that digitally counted sales by individual unit rather estimates given by store managers and owners. The new system turned album sales on their collective head, demonstrating that genres like country, hip-hop, and alternative rock were actually selling in much larger numbers than had been figured before. The album debuted at #1, was briefly dislodged for two weeks by the release of Use Your Illusion II by Guns N’ Roses, and then retook the top spot for a seven-week run. At the beginning of 1992, Brooks swapped the top spot with Nirvana’s Nevermind before settling in for another eight-week run.
From there, Brooks has had a career that can mostly be summed up by superlatives. His total output since 1989 is substantial on any scale; he’s released 77 singles, 12 studio albums, three Christmas albums, and a number of compilations and boxed sets. While Brooks took his foot off the throttle in the 2000s, actually going 13 years between the releases of Scarecrow and Man Against Machine, and though his most recent studio albums haven’t sold as well, his catalog continues to move and he remains a massive live draw around the world. To date, he’s sold a mind-boggling 170 million records. Brooks has expressed dissatisfaction with the payouts delivered by digital services like iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, which is why you won’t find his videos on the latter; that situation may have also affected his more recent sales totals in a negative way, given the popularity of digital formats and the fact that those formats now figure into chart data.
Of course, it would be unthinkable to count a personality like Brooks out. Against conventional wisdom, he took a brand of country merged with arena rock to the top of the charts, and kept it there for years. His work remains some of the best known in the genre, and still benefits from significant airplay and back-catalog sales. He’s a member of the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum. Brooks may have staked out country immortality by singing about friends in low places, but he’s put together a career defined by highs.
Featured image: Sterling Munksgard / Shutterstock
40 years ago this week, an L.A.-based rock band released their one and only album. It didn’t chart, it didn’t have a hit single, and in four decades, it hasn’t sold enough copies worldwide to even earn a Gold certification in America. And yet, while promoting that record, the band appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the beloved late-night music series Midnight Special, and The Merv Griffin Show. The clout that allowed the band to make those appearances came from the fact that their lead singer was one of the most popular entertainers in the history of the world, a single-name icon that has sold over 100 million records in her other endeavors. And that’s part of the mystery of the group called Black Rose.
Les Dudek asked for a guitar for Christmas when he was ten. He fell in love with the music of the time idolizing The Beatles and Hendrix and Cream. Gigging in his teens, he soon found himself playing on the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers & Sisters record, appearing on the classic track “Ramblin’ Man.” He’s had a long and distinguished career since, playing with Boz Scaggs, The Steve Miller Band, Stevie Nicks, and more. He’s acted and done music for films and half-a-dozen television networks in addition to releasing solo albums. But back in 1979, he started dating Cherilyn Sarkisian. You know her as Cher.
Cher exploded into mainstream popularity in 1965. As Sonny & Cher with her then-husband, Sonny Bono, the duo had a #1 hit with “I Got You Babe.” Within two years, they had sold 40 million records. Almost simultaneously, she began to release solo records, starting with “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” in 1966. Success piled on top of success with a string of major hit songs that included three #1 solo albums and the massively popular The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour on television, which ran three years. Although Cher and Bono divorced in 1975, they did another series, The Sonny & Cher Show, in 1976 and 1977. She followed that with disco hits like “Take Me Home,” demonstrating her musical flexibility.
In 1979, Cher took on a residency to do concerts in Las Vegas for three years. The lucrative gig paid the star $300,000 a week. At the same time, she and Dudek put together a group called Black Rose. Cher was a seriously established pop singer, but the Black Rose work was a turn toward a more rock-oriented sound. Among the other members of the band were Warren Ham, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist whose long career has included stints with Kansas, Toto (insert “not in Kansas anymore” joke), Olivia Newton-John, and Donna Summer. The band would take the name Black Rose, which would also be the name of the album.
Black Rose was produced by James Newton Howard, the celebrated composer that has scored more than 100 movies, including The Sixth Sense, Batman Begins, and Pretty Woman. He also co-wrote one song on the record, lead track “Never Should’ve Started,” with David Paich of Toto, Valerie Carter, and legendary songsmith David Foster. Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin co-wrote “Julie.” Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote “Take It from the Boys,” and Allee Willis, best-known for co-writing “September” for Earth, Wind & Fire, co-wrote “Young and Pretty.” This was a serious effort backed by very serious talent.
However, the band took one curious turn. The album wasn’t promoted as a “Cher” record at all. In fact, aside from hearing her voice on the tracks, the only association you’d find with Cher on the cover of the album is the group photo on the back of the record sleeve. Cher wanted it to be a real group, working on the merits of the team rather than simply making her the face of it. The group built up their live show playing gigs in L.A., all of which were arranged around Cher’s Vegas schedule. Black Rose then did a six-date tour in August of 1980, circling the August 20 album release date with shows booked entirely in the northeast. It was around this time that the band made their series of TV appearances. They played “Never Should’ve Started” and “Julie” on The Tonight Show, and also played those two numbers along with “You Know It” and “Ain’t Got No Money.” They again played “Never” on Merv Griffin.
Unfortunately, the album went nowhere. There could be a lot of factors for this. 1980 was a period where radio was in flux; disco stations were dying or switching formats even as the genre turned out #1 hits, and ballads like Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” and Barbra Steisand’s “Woman in Love” got a huge amount of airtime (those two tunes combined to take the top of the charts for nine weeks that fall and winter). A lot of programmers for rock stations didn’t add the songs, as they weren’t taking “Cher does rock” seriously. The critics were also particularly savage to Cher in reviews of the record; as she told Rolling Stone, “The critics panned us, and they didn’t attack the record. They attacked me. It was like, ‘How dare Cher sing rock & roll?’”
Black Rose had planned to do a second album, but it was cancelled. By 1982, Cher and Dudek had broken up. After wrapping up the Vegas residency, she went to Broadway to appear in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Director Robert Altman cast her in the film version, and Mike Nichols, who loved her in the play, cast her for Silkwood alongside Meryl Streep. Cher was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Silkwood; she responded by putting together her own production company and taking the lead in Mask, which earned her a Best Actress nomination. In 1987, she starred in two of the Top Ten films at the box office that year: The Witches of Eastwick and Moonstruck. Cher took home the Academy Award for Best Actress for the Moonstruck role.
With a strong and credible acting career established, Cher took a turn back to music, defiantly keeping a rock-oriented sound as she put together new material for Geffen Records. The self-titled 1987 album was produced by Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, Michael Bolton, and Desmond Child (the Hall of Fame songwriter behind classic rockers like “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer.”) The song “I Found Someone” hit the Top Ten; just two years later, her Heart of Stone album sold three million copies and sent “If I Could Turn Back Time” to #3.
In the years since, Cher has continued to do what Cher does: sing, act, and get awards (like the Billboard Icon Award and the Kennedy Center Honors). She had her biggest hit ever, “Believe,” in 1998/1999. A raucous presence on Twitter, she most recently offered to volunteer at the Post Office to help amid its current troubles. The Black Rose album was eventually reissued in Germany as a Cher album, but had little impact. Her many decades of overwhelming and ongoing success make the Black Rose anomaly even more of a mystery. Maybe it was a case of the idea being ahead of its time. Maybe it’s a comment on the lure of celebrity, and that people are more comfortable with the familiar as opposed to the unknown. And maybe it wasn’t as good as previous and subsequent material. Whatever the case, it’s an interesting side-note in one of the biggest careers in entertainment. When it comes to Black Rose, if she could turn back time . . . Cher probably wouldn’t change a thing.
Putting a band together can be an incredibly difficult proposition. The proper chemistry results in combustible creativity, explosive live performances, and a mostly stable mixture of personalities. When all of the elements successfully combine, any change can undo that balance. In that spirit, it’s extremely difficult, but not quite impossible, for a popular band to replace a lead singer for any reason. It’s been done by the likes of Genesis, Black Sabbath, and Van Halen, but it’s also failed for any number of groups. In the case of AC/DC, when lead singer Bon Scott died suddenly in 1980, they faced the daunting prospect of soldiering on with a new vocalist. Not only did the new ingredient fit, it added an accelerant that propelled the band to stratospheric success with one of the best-selling albums in history. 40 years ago this week, AC/DC came Back in Black.
Alex, George, Angus, and Malcolm Young were born in Scotland, and most of the family moved to Australia in 1963. George took up the guitar and joined The Easybeats in 1964, which would become an immensely popular band with an international hit to their credit by 1966. Alex remained in the U.K. and joined the band Grapefruit. Malcolm and Angus, both guitar players, formed their own band in Australia in 1973; from the beginning, Angus wore a costume styled like a schoolboy’s outfit on stage. Their sister Margaret suggested the name AC/DC (which stands for alternating current/direct current) after seeing it on a sewing machine.
The band’s debut album, High Voltage, hit in 1975; the line-up was Malcolm and Angus, with Phil Rudd on drums, Mark Evans on bass, and Bon Scott on lead vocals. Their popularity grew quickly in Australia, and they released a second album, T.N.T., before 1975 was out. The next year, they signed with Atlantic Records for international distribution. In 1977, Mark Evans was fired and Cliff Williams joined on bass (a position he would hold until his 2016 retirement). AC/DC built their American presence through constant touring, opening for U.S. acts like Kiss, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Styx. They also made albums on a steady basis, turning out six by 1979. The sixth, Highway to Hell, finally established them as a chart act in the States; with assured production by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, the record went to #17 and created an indelible anthem with the title track.
Then, disaster struck. Bon Scott died at 33, with the official cause cited as acute alcohol poisoning. The rest of AC/DC considered disbanding, but Scott’s parents urged the band to continue. Much of the next album, Back in Black, had already been written by Malcolm and Angus, and they’d be teaming again with producer Lange. When the time came to find a new vocalist, Lange suggested the former lead singer of the band Geordie, Brian Johnson. In an eerie coincidence, Scott himself had once told the rest of the band about seeing Johnson live and how much he appreciated his style. Johnson came in to audition, and was quickly offered the spot.
Lange, the band, and engineer Tony Platt assembled in the Bahamas to work on the record at Compass Point Studios. With the area bombarded by storms for a few days, Johnson wrote the hurricane-laden lyrics to what would become “Hells Bells.” The band called their management to find a bell that would make the proper sound they wanted on the track; they ended up commissioning a foundry to make a bell to achieve the sound they were after. With the record done, the band went back and forth with the label over the cover. The band wanted an entirely black cover to represent mourning for Scott; they finally agreed to black cover with simple grey lettering.
Back in Black hit stores on July 25, 1980. The album was an instant international hit. It went to #1 in the U.K. and #4 in the States; it stuck around the U.S. Top Ten for five months. David Fricke from Rolling Stone praised it highly, writing that record was “not only the best of AC/DC’s six American albums . . . the apex of heavy-metal art: the first LP since Led Zeppelin II that captures all the blood, sweat and arrogance of the genre.” The song line-up included a murderer’s row of anthems. In addition to “Hells Bells” and the title track, stand-outs included “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution,” and “Shoot to Thrill.” “You Shook Me All Night Long” was released as the lead single, and it cracked the Top 40 in the U.S.; to date, the song has sold over three million copies in America; the album sold a reported 25 million copies. While solid numbers remain in dispute due to different certification and ranking systems, multiple sources put the record as firmly in the Top Ten for all-time sales in the States, and behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller for worldwide sales of a single album.
In the years since, the band has weathered the ups and downs associated with any long-running act. They’ve had tremendous successes like 1990’s The Razor’s Edge album, and the band stayed on the road as a top-selling touring act for decades. In 2003, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The band also got an ongoing boost from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Iron Man 2 soundtrack in 2010 was a compilation of songs from the band, and “Shoot to Thrill” became Iron Man’s theme song across other films, recurring at a crucial moment in 2012’s The Avengers. “Back in Black” also appears in a scene in Spider-Man: Far from Home, wherein Peter Parker humorously misidentifies the band as Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, Malcolm Young was forced to depart the band in 2014 as he battled dementia; he passed in 2017. In 2016, Brian Johnson was also forced to leave to deal with hearing problems; Guns ‘N’ Roses lead singer Axl Rose joined the band to sing lead on the group’s remaining 2016 dates. At the end of the tour, bassist Cliff Williams retired.
If rock and roll has taught us anything, it’s that no classic band will stay down forever. Rumors have swirled since 2018 that Angus was pulling together songs using guitar tracks that he and Malcolm had laid down prior to his brother’s death. By 2019, rumors had picked up that Angus would be rejoined by Johnson, Rudd, and Williams on a new album and forthcoming tour. If it’s true that one of the most popular bands of all time is about to return to rock, then we salute them.
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To say that 2020 has been an odd year would be an understatement on the order of “The Beatles were mildly popular.” One of the places that the strangeness of our lockdown year has been reflected has been at the movies. With regular theaters closed, drive-ins surged, frequently playing older films. That resulted in the unusual case of 1993’s Jurassic Park hitting the top of the box office again in June. That phenomenon leads to the following questions: what are the biggest gaps between chart toppers, whether at the box office, the record charts, or elsewhere, and what are the film and TV series that have stuck around the longest?
1. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
Jurassic Park stomped to #1 for three weeks upon its initial release in 1993. On June 22nd, lifted by drive-ins, the film took the top spot again 27 years after its original ride. Gone with the Wind remains the all-time box office champion if you adjust for inflation, and the 1939 film had three official re-releases (1989, 1998, 2019), but none of them cracked the #1 spot.
2. Cockroaches and Cher
There’s an old joke that goes that if there’s ever a nuclear war, all that’s left will be cockroaches and Cher. While that’s a loving, tongue-in-cheek tribute to the star’s longevity and resiliency, it also has a ring of truth to it where the charts are concerned. Cher hit #1 for the first time in August of 1965 with her then-husband Sonny Bono on their classic “I Got You Babe.” After a continuous run of hits throughout the rest of the 1960s, the 1970s (with three solo #1s), the 1980s, and the 1990s, Cher took “Believe” to #1 in March of 1998. That’s an amazing 33-year-and-seven-month gap between her first #1 and her most recent #1.
Other prodigious gaps between first and most recent #1s have been held by George Harrison (23 years and 11 months between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a Beatle in 1964 and “Got My Mind Set on You” in 1988), The Beach Boys (24 years and 5 months between “I Get Around” and “Kokomo”), Elton John (24 years and 8 months between “Crocodile Rock” and “Candle in the Wind 1997”) and Michael Jackson (25 years and 8 months between “I Want You Back” with The Jackson 5 and “You Are Not Alone”).
3. His Name is Series, Longest-Running Series
While the overall continuity of the James Bond series is in question, everyone generally treats the films as if they’re part of an ongoing mega-series. It’s the third-highest grossing franchise in movie history, behind only the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars. But the biggest weapon that Q never designed is Bond’s insane longevity. The first film, Dr. No, was released in October of 1962. If No Time to Die keeps its adjusted November 20, 2020 release date, then that will be 58 years and one month between the first and most recent installments of the series.
4. Call The Doctor!
Another British favorite that will seemingly go on forever is Doctor Who. There’s no question about Who continuity; everything is fair game, particularly when your main character is a regenerating Time Lord that is simply the same character in a new form with each re-casting. The Doctor’s first adventure aired in 1963. The original series ran uninterrupted until 1989. A TV film aired in 1996. The series restarted in earnest in 2005 and has been running ever since. The most recent season ended in March of this year. While the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has put production dates everywhere in question, a special, “Revolution of the Daleks,” should air around the holidays, and the next season is generally expected to air beginning in 2021. If you simply use today as the metric for how long the single continuity of Doctor Who has been running, that’s 57 years of adventures in space and time.
5. Hang on, Marshal Dillon; Detective Benson Is Here
For many years, the issue of the longest-running drama on prime time American television wasn’t a question. That was Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955 to 1975. In 2019, that record was passed by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which started in 1999 and is ongoing at present; in fact, NBC has already given it a blanket renewal through a 24th season. The longest-running prime-time program overall is animated comedy The Simpsons, which launched in 1989 and is still running.
On the daytime side, the Guiding Light still holds the record for longest running daytime drama with 57 years on the books at its 2009 sign-off. That record will fall to General Hospital in the very near future. Had it not been for the interruption in production brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, GH would have passed it this summer. At the moment, a hard pass date can’t be established until production resumes.
6. Seriously, I Was Writing the Whole Time
Some writers seem to function at an inhuman level of output. For every George R.R. Martin, who takes years between A Game of Thrones installments, you have his pal Stephen King, who has averaged 1.4 novels a year since 1974 (plus 11 short story collections, 19 screenplays and five nonfiction works). Then you have the entirely opposite end of the spectrum where dwell writers that have a literal lifetime between their first and second novels. The big winner there is Harper Lee; 55 years passed between the release of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. On the technical level, the issue of what to call Watchman exactly is the subject of some debate; yes, it’s a novel, but it’s also really the first draft of what would become Mockingbird.
If you’re looking for the longest gap between an original novel and its sequel, then King might hold the record. It’s true that 59 years passed between the publication of Upton Sinclair’s King Coal and the follow-up The Coal War. However, Sinclair finished the sequel in 1917; the publisher didn’t want to put it out and it sat until 1976, eight years after Sinclair’s passing. King’s gap comes between the 1977 publication of The Shining and its sequel, 2013’s Doctor Sleep, which hit stores 36 years later.
7. Another Day in the 87th Precinct
When it comes to the longest-running series of novels, there are quite a few qualifiers involved. Some novels are franchises given over to other writers, or are based on characters owned by companies rather than individuals. That might account for characters like Doc Savage or Remo Williams/The Destroyer, that have hundreds of novels under their fictional belts. Then you get into series, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, with 40 books, or Agatha Christie’s 38 books centered on Hercule Poirot, or the exploits of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe in 49 books. Erle Stanley Gardner produced 82 Perry Mason mysteries between 1933 and 1973.
But the longest sustained series by one author appears to be the 87th Precinct series of novels by Ed McBain, which is the pseudonym of Evan Hunter. Between 1956 and 2005, McBain put out 54 novels that take place in one overarching continuity. Set in the city of Isola, a fictional analogue of New York City, the novels follow the cases of the Precinct, most of which involve Detective 2nd Grade Steve Carella.
It seems appropriate to give a mention here to Sue Grafton. From 1982 to 2017, she published “The Alphabet Mysteries,” a series featuring her detective Kinsey Millhone. The books were designed to be a series of 26, one for each letter of the alphabet (A is for Alibi, etc.). The series ran for 35 years. Unfortunately, Grafton passed away in 2017 before beginning the planned Z is for Zero. As opposed to writers like Robert Jordan, who worked with others to see that his Wheel of Time series would be completed after his death, Grafton disdained the idea of having a ghostwriter finish the series. In the Facebook post that announced her mother’s passing, Grafton’s daughter Jamie wrote, “Many of you also know that she was adamant that her books would never be turned into movies or TV shows, and in that same vein, she would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”
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Musicologists will tell you that you can trace the roots of funk to New Orleans, where that city’s potent and constantly bubbling stew of music brought together rhythm and blues, soul, jazz, and Afro-Cuban influences into something distinct. While a number of musicians can and should be credited for elevating funk as a style, few people have waved the banner like George Clinton. In 1970 alone, his two related bands, Parliament and Funkadelic, released three albums that built upon the foundation laid by earlier artists. Osmium, Parliament’s debut album, dropped 50 years ago this week, and they and Funkadelic have been tearing the roof off ever since.
No less an authority than James Brown himself credited Little Richard’s ’50s era band with injecting funk into rock music. As players from Richard’s group began to back Brown in the Fabulous Flames, the funk sound crept into Brown’s music. Exemplified by syncopated guitar riffs and basslines, an emphasis on the first beat of each measure (“the one”), and frequent deployment of horns, the funk style shaped by Brown and his band emerged on 1960s tracks like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and 1970’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” At the same time, acts like Sly and the Family Stone (“Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” the Isley Brothers (“It’s Your Thing”), and the Meters (“Cissy Strut”) were defining areas of the sound, and groups like the Temptations began to integrate it into their music on tracks like “I Can’t Get Next to You.” While the Motown house band called the Funk Brothers played on countless hits for that label, they didn’t actually use a “funk” sound until later, and by the time that definable funk got onto the Motown records, many were being laid down by other studio musicians in L.A.
George Clinton had become a staff writer for Motown in the 1960s after forming a vocal group called the Parliaments. The group had a big hit on the Revilot Records label in 1967 with “(I Wanna) Testify,” and Clinton made a name for himself writing and producing for a number of other groups and labels. Unfortunately, Revilot went bankrupt and Clinton lost control of the name the Parliaments. The group reinvented itself as Funkadelic, putting the five singers of the vocal group, including Clinton, together with five other musicians backing them up. This combo positioned themselves more in a rock vein, blending elements of funk with psychedelic rock in the mode of the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. They put out their self-titled debut album on Westbound; a number of the personnel went uncredited due to a variety of label and contractual issues.
By 1970, Clinton had the brainstorm: The group could perform different music under a different name. Dropping the original the and the plural to become Parliament, Clinton and his nine partners signed with Invictus Records. Their debut album, Osmium, hit store son July 7, 1970. Also in July, as Funkadelic, the group released Free Your Mind … And Your Ass Will Follow, totaling three distinct albums released by the combo under two names in one calendar year. That album featured some backing vocals by Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent just before they began backing Tony Orlando as Dawn.
Of the three records, Free Your Mind … was the most successful. Funkadelic began releasing more albums, like 1971’s Maggot Brain, that have grown in reputation, but that were not big chart movers. However, Maggot Brain was the final album of the original combo; after that record, more rotating musicians and a larger cast would form the canvas of both groups. Clinton and company didn’t put out the second Parliament album until 1974, but Up for the Down Stroke, which featured bassist Bootsy Collins, resulted in their first single on the charts (the title track) and established more of the familiar P-Funk feel. Parliament also developed a reputation for vibrant stage shows with elaborate costuming and theatrics. The following year, Parliament put out two landmark albums, Chocolate City and Mothership Connection. Connection gave the band their first gold record and possibly their best known song, “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker),” which went to No. 15 on the Hot 100 and sold a million copies by 1976.
Since then, Clinton, Parliament, and Funkadelic have carved out a niche as a major influence on the acts that came after them, whether touring and recording separately or as Parliament-Funkadelic or the P-Funk All-Stars.P-Funk is a word that immediately conjures notions of unshakeable grooves and pure showmanship. Clinton has released singles like “Atomic Dog” and produced for bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Over time, the P-Funk collective has become one of the most influential sampled groups in hip-hop, with artists like Tupac, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Outkast working directly with Clinton and sampling his material. In the 1990s, P-Funk reached a new legion of fans by touring with the Beastie Boys and appearing on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour. They also made a lengthy appearance in the cult comedy P.C.U.
Although Clinton announced his 2019 retirement from touring in 2018, he anticipates that some version of Parliament-Funkadelic will continue to tour. He told Billboard at the time, “Truth be told, it’s never really been about me. It’s always been about the music and the band. That’s the real P-Funk legacy. They’ll still be funkin’ long after I stop.”
And with the funk still going strong after 50 years, who could tell Dr. Funkenstein that he’s wrong?
Featured image: Jason Benz Bennee / Shutterstock.com
We can’t all travel to New York City and shell out for theater seats (and we certainly can’t travel back in time), so a cast album is often the best way to experience our favorite musicals. Here is a list of the best of the best Broadway cast albums, ranked with their popularity, critical acclaim, influence, and staying power in mind.
50. Pacific Overtures
Rarely performed, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about 19th-century Japan combines traditional Japanese musical forms and theater with his signature complex compositional style. Most importantly, Pacific contains Sondheim’s favorite of all of his own songs, “Someone in a Tree.” The song is also featured, perhaps in its best version, in the live concert album A Stephen Sondheim Evening.
49. Dear World
Angela Lansbury plays a French countess who foils an oil corporation’s plan to drill under a Parisian bistro in this 1968 production that was ultimately a critical failure. In spite of the Times’ review claiming the show “stubbornly refuses to get off the ground,” Jerry Herman’s (Hello, Dolly!, Mame) charming score is perfectly matched to his leading lady, and his songs about alienation in the modern world still resonate.
48. Spring Awakening
Pure teenage angst in a rock musical that takes place in 19th-century Germany. Songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F#@%ed” express the sexual frustration and “sadness in your soul” when you’re an adolescent ill-prepared for life’s disappointments. Glee’s Lea Michele Sarfati and John Gallagher, Jr. star in the original cast recording.
Uploaded by The Julie Andrews Archive
It was John F. Kennedy’s favorite musical, and the utopian lore Camelot evoked was a sort of metaphor for the Kennedy administration for many throughout the “Turbulent Sixties.” It was also Richard Burton’s rare musical role and the only time he appeared with Julie Andrews. Their chemistry shines through the show’s endearing songs as they convince listeners “that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory called Camelot.”
46. The Most Happy Fella
Uploaded by Jim Berg
The stars of Frank Loesser’s epically long musical, Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan Loesser, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 28, 1956 to perform a few songs from the show. It just so happened to be the same night Elvis Presley would make his second appearance on the program, so they found themselves with the lion’s share of American television viewers tuned in to their performance. The musical is somewhat of an underrated classic, filled with catchy tunes and operatic voices.
45. The Wiz
A racial barrier-breaker on Broadway, The Wiz told L. Frank Baum’s story with an all-black cast and soul and disco music. Plenty had their doubts about whether the costly venture was worthwhile — and it was even left out of the 1975 Tony Awards — but the show has proven its critics wrong, generating a movie adaptation with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lena Horne, and gaining entry into the Library of Congress in 2017.
44. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Part horror, part comedy, and part tragedy, there isn’t another musical like Sweeney Todd. Make no mistake: Tim Burton’s film adaptation will never deliver the same vocal excellence as Len Cariou’s and Angela Lansbury’s 1979 performance. As proof, sink your teeth into the original recording, if you can find it, and “have a little priest.”
43. I Love My Wife
An incredible, but mostly forgotten, Cy Coleman musical from 1977, I Love My Wife brought both folk music and wife-swapping to the Broadway stage. The cast recording is a unique time capsule of fun, risque showtunes that could only be the product of ’70s New York.
42. The Lion King
Audiences knew there was something different about this Broadway experience when giant elephant and rhino puppets strolled down the aisles in the opening number. The soundtrack retains the magic of Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s music, along with some new tunes, like “He Lives in You.” Disney’s best Broadway venture remains one of the longest-running shows in history.
41. In the Heights
Before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical depicted Dominican immigrants in his home neighborhood of Washington Heights. The hip hop score is contagious and moving, and the film adaptation is on its way. The movie was set to hit theaters just last week, but the pandemic pushed it back a year.
40. On the Twentieth Century
A big musical farce featuring Kevin Kline and Madeleine Kahn on a train in the Roaring Twenties. Cy Coleman turned the 1932 play into a driving operetta that entertains and practically begs for a film adaptation.
Uploaded by Cats the Musical
We’re going to have to choose to forget about the bizarre bomb of a movie adaptation released last winter and make a collective decision to remember Cats for the Broadway smash hit it was. The record-breaking Broadway engagement inspired a cult following and introduced scores of audiences to T.S. Eliot’s whimsical poetry through an eclectic mix of genre- and reality-bending songs. Taylor Swift? James Corden? I have no memory of that movie.
38. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
A sharp satire of the Mad Men business world of mid-century America, the joint effort of Frank Loesser, Bob Fosse, and Robert Morse follows a man who rises through the ranks of a business by reading a book and taking its advice.
This electric, edifying musical about the bold, reformist New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a hit, and its cast album was on the Billboard chart for more than a year. Though it seems to have been largely forgotten, Fiorello! offers a relevant history lesson on grassroots politics along with a dynamic, catchy score.
Long before he composed the Broadway sensation Wicked, Steven Schwartz made this humble rock musical adaptation of the New Testament. A favorite for high schools and community theaters across the country, Godspell also produced a hit album in 1971 (technically an Off-Broadway cast album) and a popular song in “Day by Day.”
35. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The seeming rise in youth competitiveness is sent up hilariously in this 2005 Broadway musical. Six child spelling bee contestants — played by adults, including Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson — face the sexual tension, familial disappointments, and paralyzing failure that comes with adolescence. The music ranges from sing-songy to full gospel as one by one the spellers are eliminated and their stories are revealed.
34. Man of La Mancha
Uploaded by The Ed Sullivan Show
“The Impossible Dream” inspired covers by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, The Temptations, Glen Campbell, Aretha Franklin, and so many others. The 1965 musical that popularized the song was a telling of the ridiculously noble knight Don Quixote that ran for 2,300 performances at ANTA Washington Square Theatre in Greenwich Village.
33. Dear Evan Hansen
A unique modern musical in its treatment of youth anxiety, suicide, and social media, Dear Evan Hansen has taken pop-rock music to its most interesting and dynamic edge.
32. The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Uploaded by Original Broadway Cast of ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’
After striking it rich with her oil man husband in Colorado, the famous Margaret Brown traveled Europe and sailed back on the RMS Titanic — until it sank, that is. Meredith Willson, of Music Man notoriety, wrote the songs and lyrics that immortalize the feisty socialite and all-American personality.
31. Avenue Q
The racy puppet musical that upset Wicked to win the Tony for Best Musical in 2004. Its cast album, like albums by 50 Cent and Ludacris that year, had a “Parental Advisory” sticker for its adult themes. Ultimately, the Sesame Street-style treatment of racism, homosexuality, and post-college ennui became a household name and breathed new life into Broadway.
30. Pajama Game
Of all the musicals about labor struggles (and there are a lot), Pajama Game is perhaps the campiest. The show introduced “Steam Heat” — and Bob Fosse’s minimalist choreography style — to American theater. Directors George Abbott and Jerome Robbins butted heads over whether to keep the number in the show after tryouts, but Fosse won the Tony for Best Choreography because of it.
Before performing his most well-known role in Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little starred as the traveling preacher Purlie Victorious in this Jim Crow-era sendup of racism. The play’s author, Ossie Davis, and his wife and Purlie star Ruby Dee were avid Civil Rights activists and friends of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson.
28. The Book of Mormon
The creators of South Park struck gold with an irreverent musical about Mormon missionaries in Uganda. It’s one of the funniest musicals in history and, perhaps surprisingly, touching for its wide-eyed and well-meaning characters.
27. Into the Woods
The fervent fanbase of this fractured fairy tale amalgamation is made up of “musical-theatre fans who were children in the eighties and thought they were too good for Andrew Lloyd Webber,” if one is to believe Michael Schulman in The New Yorker. But Into the Woods, and Sondheim more broadly, have likely gained wider audiences with the spike in film adaptations and stage revivals of his work. This one is a masterful satire of fairy tales that can work its magic on any willing audience or listener. Even Cats fanatics.
A musical that brings the turn of the century to life, featuring figures from the era like Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington. Ragtime is a sprawling show, using historical music genres to tell dramatic stories of inequality and persistence with heart and humor.
25. Anything Goes
A wild ensemble of characters board a London-bound ship, and, as the title and famous number suggest, anything goes. This legendary collaboration between P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Cole Porter starred Ethel Merman and William Gaxton in its original 1934 production, but there are plenty of worthwhile recordings, including the 1987 revival with Patti LuPone.
24. Mr. President
Irving Berlin’s last musical — opening when the composer was 74 years old — received a lukewarm critical response. Mr. President was possibly “behind its time” when it ran in 1962, but it remains a refreshingly perky and underrated score from the man behind Annie Get Your Gun and White Christmas.
Uploaded by London Theatre Direct
In the long tradition of musicals that distill and celebrate the youth of an era, Rent depicted the artistic scene of New York City in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. But the late Jonathan Larson’s rock opera was also channeling something else: Puccini’s La Bohème, an Italian opera about a strikingly similar bohemian group of friends in Paris in the 1830s.
22. Merrily We Roll Along
The recent documentary The Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened chronicles the epic disappointment the young cast of Sondheim’s 1981 musical faced when they discovered their big break was a flop. Running for only 16 performances, Merrily received poor reviews (mostly due to the backwards, hard-to-follow plot). The show has resurfaced, however, many times over the years, and Richard Linklater is currently filming it in a Boyhood-style 20-year-long production to be released in 2040.
21. The Phantom of the Opera
With more than 13,000 performances, Phantom is the longest-running Broadway show by far. The original cast recording, featuring Michael Crawford’s haunting phantom and Sarah Brightman’s iconic soprano, is a staple of any showtunes collection.
20. Tie: West Side Story and The Sound of Music
Uploaded by The Ed Sullivan Show
The artists behind West Side Story — Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, Carol Lawrence — were a group of Broadway all-stars: diehard perfectionists out to make their modern Romeo and Juliet a theatrical hit. They succeeded, turning the rough gang story into a classic.
The thrilling and heartwarming true story of Maria Von Trapp and her romance, and escape from Germany, with an Austro-Hungarian naval captain. The songs have entered modern cultural parlance, and the musical spawned an adaptation that has become a cult film over the years. Mary Martin’s original Maria set the bar for many others, including Florence Henderson, Petula Clark, and, of course, Julie Andrews.
19. Hello, Dolly!
Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman was the original title of this Jerry Herman classic. Carol Channing originated the role of the Brooklynite matchmaker (and she played it at least three more times). Hello, Dolly! carved out a month and a half on the top of the album charts in the summer of 1964 (first as a cast album, then as a Louis Armstrong’s release) in a sea of top Beatles’ albums.
As the second-longest-running show in Broadway history, the 1996 revival of Chicago, and its cast album, has become the standard for the Prohibition-era musical. The Fosse-inspired dance sequences, captivating story, and never-miss song list have made it a mainstay musical in American theater.
17. Sunday in the Park with George
At the Art Institute of Chicago, you can see A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, the famous pointillist painting that took Georges Seurat two years to complete. In Sondheim’s Pulitzer-winning musical, you can see a — greatly — fictionalized account of the artist’s life during those years and long afterward. Sunday is a brilliant meditation on art and expression, love and resentment. Mandy Patinkin’s vocal control in singing high notes one minute and barking like a dog the next is reason enough to experience the cast album (or the American Playhouse video recording).
16. The Music Man
It’s hard to overstate how popular The Music Man was upon its debut in 1957. The cast album was the most popular album in the country for three months, and it stayed on the Billboard charts for almost five years. After The Beatles covered “Till There Was You,” Meredith Willson’s estate made more money from royalties off their recording than the play.
15. Caroline, or Change
Uploaded by OfficialLondonTheatre
The immensely innovative musical drama set in Civil Rights-era Louisiana combines soul, jazz, and folk music to tell a powerful, nuanced story about the American dream. Caroline, or Change has flown under the Broadway radar for mass audiences, but its commentary on race and class has never seemed more relevant. The cast album is a transcendent collage of American culture and a testament to African-American excellence in musical theater.
14. South Pacific
Critic John Kenrick wrote of South Pacific’s 1949 cast album, “this classic recording is essential to any civilized home.” From summer through winter that year, Americans snatched up the album, making it the best-selling record of the year, and possibly the decade. South Pacific takes a bold stance against racism that was a major theatrical risk in the 1940s. Its catchy songs and early adoption of antiracism have made it a centerpiece of American musical theater.
13. Funny Girl
In her second and last Broadway role, Barbra Streisand sings her heart out, launching a long recording and acting career. Her voice on this original cast album is indomitable, from “I’m the Greatest Star” to “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” playing the comedic entertainer Fanny Brice.
If you’re only listening to the movie soundtrack, you’re missing a lot of music from the original show, songs like “Don’t Tell Mama” and “So What.” From the musical’s “overture” (a long drum roll and cymbal crash) to the ongoing juxtaposition between Berlin’s raucous cabaret scene and the rise of Nazism, Cabaret zeroes in on a particular intersection of history and entertainment and remains as both an exuberant exultation and a dark warning.
A simultaneously political and touching backstory that will change the way you think about The Wizard of Oz, Wicked shines a spotlight on the Wicked Witch of the West, retelling her redeeming story and creating a fantastical, steampunk Oz in the process. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel inhabit their roles, giving dynamo vocal performances and complicating the lore of the good witch and the bad witch.
10. Les Miserables
When Les Mis first opened in London, more than a few critics panned the musical, calling it a witless “Victorian melodrama.” Then, it became a record-breaker, drawing audiences adding up to the tens of millions over the years. At its heart, it is a story about injustice and tyranny over oppressed people, and its popular appeal probably owes to those universal themes as well as a killer score. Sometimes, the critics are just wrong.
9. A Little Night Music
Sondheim’s best-reviewed musical, and the one with his most popular song, “Send in the Clowns.” The musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night is a “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting … orgy of plaintively memorable waltzes,” according to the Times’s Clive Barnes. The original cast recording also features some of the best cover art to ever grace showtunes: at first glance, a nighttime elm, and with a closer look, nude reposing bodies in its branches.
8. My Fair Lady
George Bernard Shaw, ever the difficult playwright, refused to allow his play Pygmalion to be adapted into a musical. After he died in 1950, however, he could no longer object. Chase Manhattan Bank controlled the rights, and composers Lerner and Loewe preemptively scored the whole thing to have the upper hand over their competitors, MGM. The result was a critical and popular success that continues to delight audiences.
7. A Chorus Line
A disco album that holds up. A Chorus Line is a Broadway record-breaker that tells the stories of New York dancers with all of their ugliness, hilarity, and heartbreaking triumph or failure. The musical swept the Tonys in 1976 and became the longest-running American show for a time.
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Oklahoma! was the first Broadway musical smash hit. During its run, one radio announcer quipped, “Look at that play Oklahoma! A man died last week and left his place in line to his wife. If she dies before she gets her tickets, her place in line goes to an uncle in Baltimore.” Reportedly, the $4.80 tickets were going for as much as $50 on the street.
Ethel Merman plays the role of her life, radiating from the stage (and stereo) as Rose, the ultimate stage mom. Based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, this backstage musical expresses the ecstasy and terror of show business ruthlessly.
4. Guys and Dolls
Gamblers, dancers, and good, Christian teetotalers make up this double romantic comedy that launched songs with serious staying power. Just a few weeks ago, Chris Thile was singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” on NPR. According to some accounts, Guys and Dolls was supposed to win the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but writer Abe Burrows’s ties to the Communist Party turned off the Pulitzer committee and the award was cancelled.
As long as the performers stood stationary, James Rado said, a New York City ordinance allowed nudity in theatrical productions. Rado, along with his collaborator Gerome Ragni, took this opportunity to include a scene in their free-spirited musical in which the cast of over 20 performers shed their beads and jeans to sing a number stark naked. Before Hair, there was The Sound of Music and Camelot; after Hair, anything was possible. The cast recording was an irreverent favorite in Baby Boomer record collections. It was the last musical to hit number one on the Billboard album chart, until …
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Maybe the American history lesson is a tad romanticized and sexed up, but there’s no doubt that Hamilton has changed musical theater forever. In a sea of remakes and jukebox musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda carved his name on Broadway, making space for hip hop and minority performers in a story about a founding father. If you’ve managed to snatch up tickets in the five years this show has run in New York and toured the country, good for you. If you haven’t, you can finally see the video recording on Disney Plus.
1. Fiddler on the Roof
The political and the personal intertwine and unfold beautifully in this story of fading tradition. Every one of Jerry Bock’s songs manages to entertain, tell a story, and carry its audience to a remote Jewish village in Imperial Russia. Fiddler‘s themes of the pain of progress couldn’t possibly be more relevant. Anatevka might as well be America, and we are all fiddlers on a roof.
Ineligible Honorable Mentions:
Promenade, Off-Broadway Cast Recording
Show Boat Complete Recording
Chess, Original London Cast Recording
Featured image: Scene from Oklahoma, 1943-1944, Theatre Guild production, Library of Congress, U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black & White Photographs
Portable radio was nothing new in 1980. There had already been decades of transistor radios that allowed you to access music as you traveled or went through your day. The missing piece in music that you carried was choice. Sony answered the call, releasing the Walkman, a portable cassette player with a headphone jack, in 1979; it hit stores in America 40 years ago today. But even as the Walkman blazed trails, it was merely the first step in an ongoing evolution. Here’s a brief history of personal listening devices.
1. The Sony Walkman (1980)
The revolutionary part of the Walkman is that it opened the doors of selection along with portability. You could choose from your own selection of cassettes (or make your own!) and you were no longer bound to the strictures of frequently difficult-to-tune terrestrial radio stations. The Walkman had two lasting impacts on American culture: people with a Walkman said that they literally walked more, and the combination of the Walkman and cassette players in car stereos meant that cassettes overtook vinyl as the primary selling medium for music in 1983.
The Walkman got an unexpected boost in 2014 when one was heavily featured in Guardians of the Galaxy; Sony released a new special edition Walkman in honor of the film, and the soundtrack was released on cassette as well. Sony no longer makes the device in Japan, but they are still produced in China for sale in other markets.
2. The Sony Discman (1984)
As you’d expect, the Sony Discman was a portable compact disc player, which made its debut in 1982. When the Discman hit, it had an immediate impact. Larger home CD players were forced to drop their prices in response, and an upsurge happened in the market across the board. Subsequently, CD sales increased. Dire Straits sold one million copies of Brothers in Arms on CD in 1985, and David Bowie made his entire catalog to that time available on the format that same year. With artists embracing the format, CDs overtook cassettes in sales by the early 1990s.
3. MP3 Players (1997)
MP3 as a format debuted in 1994, but at that point it was only a standard on computers. The South Korean company SaeHan Information Systems released the MPMan F10 in 1997; it hit the States in 1998. The Rio also debuted to strong sales in 1998; it even sparked one of the first lawsuits over digital music rights. The introduction of MP3 players was a watershed moment, as they removed the need for physical media, instead relying on files. The next several devices that had an impact on the market all relied on this approach. The format made its phone debut on the Samsung SPH-M100 in 2000; it was the first mobile phone able to play MP3 music.
4. iPod (2001)
Apple’s iPod was an immediate game-changer in terms of design, interface, and sheer volume of songs that you could fit on a device (1,000 songs? Insanity!). The development of iTunes concurrent with the launch meant that you could manage and update your library easily; you could assemble an entirely new playlist in minutes with a few clicks. The impact was seismic; as of December of 2019, Apple had sold roughly 400 million units across their various platforms. While the 7th Generation iPod Touch remains available, iPod sales dropped when the same type of functionality essentially became available on iPhones, eliminating the need for a second device.
5. Zune (2006)
Microsoft introduced an entire line under the Zune brand in 2006. In addition to the Zune Music Pass, which was a music subscription model, there was the actual Zune player. The Zune player went through four generations between 2006 and 2012 before the hardware versions were discontinued after struggling against the sales might of Apple’s devices. Though the Zune software still exists, the Microsoft music player was rebranded as Groove Music beginning with Windows 8.
The most notable recent appearance by a Zune came in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; after Star-Lord’s Walkman is destroyed during the battle with Ego, Kraglin gives him a Zune loaded with 300 songs (which amazes Star-Lord, since he left Earth in the 1980s).
6. Spotify (2008)
Spotify isn’t a device, of course, but the app’s availability and pervasiveness on every other device have played a part in the transition of music from separate devices to phones. It’s the most popular service, with 286 million active users per month, 130 million of whom are using the paid option. Spotify has serious competition from the likes of Tidal, Apple Music, Amazon, and YouTube Music, but it consistently outdraws them and was rated the best service in Telegraph U.K.’s exhaustive dive into the apps in April of this year. The best part about Spotify for people who are into new music are its various Discovery features that point users to new music.
It’s hard to say what the future of portable music looks like. Some prognosticators consider wearables (like Air Pods, etc.) are the way that music will go. A number of other tech innovations involving virtual live music continue to appear, but many of those are experiential rather than portable (it’s hard to jog while watching Diplo spin on Fortnite). For the time being, it appears that main drivers of music remain apps, and it would make sense to watch for changes in how that apps are delivered for the next evolution in portable music.
Featured image: Ned Snowman / Shutterstock.com
Writing about the irrepressible Peggy Lee in this magazine in 1964, Thomas C. Wheeler described one of the jazz singer’s recent performances of her song “Great Big Love”: “Singing about the sun lighting up the world, she spins around the stage spreading her arms like a blonde astronaut weightless in a capsule. The goggle-eyed audiences look as if they are watching the first lady to be orbited.”
At the time, Lee’s career was unprecedented. She had sold more than 20 million records in her two decades of recording music, and she attracted a large fanbase that was diverse in every possible way. Today, she would be 100 years old.
In spite of her hard work and good fortune, Peggy Lee was often plagued with profound unhappiness that sent her on a spiritual quest for inner peace.
After being discovered by Benny Goodman in the ’40s, “Miss Peggy Lee” sold her sultry jazz persona with hits like “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” and “Fever.” She cut records at breakneck speed, arranging jazz standards and pop songs along with her own work. She starred in The Lady and the Tramp, a remake of The Jazz Singer, and Pete Kelly’s Blues, earning an Oscar nomination.
Although Lee’s music career had been a remarkable success — affording her a peach-interior mansion in Bel Air — the sensual singer struggled with a traumatic childhood and rocky relationships. In 1969, she released the song that would come to embody her career, the one in which she asked “Is That All There Is?”
The song tells about a young girl who sees “the whole world go up in flames” when her house catches fire, an experience Lee had been through herself. She had also lost her mother at a young age. When Peggy Lee went searching for answers to her life’s tragic questions, she went to Ernest Holmes and The Science of Mind.
Holmes was a leader in the metaphysical Religious Science movement. He encouraged its adherents to use positive intentions in order to conjure happiness. Holmes’s 1926 book, The Science of Mind, was a hit with other Hollywood luminaries too, like Cecil B. DeMille and Cary Grant. Lee became close with Holmes, consulting him often and even coming to affectionately call him “Papa,” according to James Gavin’s biography Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee.
As Holmes wrote in the credo of his church, “We believe in the direct revelation of truth through our intuitive and spiritual nature, and that anyone may become a revealer of truth who lives in close contact with the indwelling God.” Gavin explains the appeal of Holmes’s hybrid religion: “For Lee, who already lived by the force of her imagination, Holmes’s edicts seemed heaven-sent, the confirmation of all she wished to believe.” She had been “looking for God” since her mother died when she was four years old.
Gavin’s biography paints a less-than-charitable picture of Peggy Lee, exposing her as a woman who was, “by all accounts, an alcoholic, a prescription-drug addict, a heavy smoker and a binge eater frequently out of touch with reality.” But no one could ever say she didn’t put in the work, or that she didn’t at least try to improve herself. In her conversation with Wheeler for the Post in 1964, Lee described her approach to spirituality and self-improvement, specifically recalling an evening with composer Cy Coleman in New York in which she guided him through a calming meditation, repeating the phrase “receiving and giving” to him over and over. “That’s what we have to do, all the time. Receiving and giving,” she said.
Her anthem “Is That All There Is?” might seem — on its face — to be a lamentation to “break out the booze and have a ball” in light of life’s disappointments, but she didn’t wish for it to be interpreted that way (at least, according to an interview she gave with Science of Mind magazine in 1987). Lee said that the title and chorus had a different meaning for her. She had moved the emphasis of the chorus from that to is to try to make the song into a hopeful affirmation: “To me, it was just the opposite. It said we go through one experience after another, some of them negative into a positive. We learn, grow stronger, can go on to new experiences because there is always more.”
Featured Image: Peggy Lee (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
The city was thronged. On Thursday, September 3, 1936, tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, to catch a glimpse of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrived by train at the Rock Island station at noon. Troops from the Fourteenth Cavalry stood at attention as uniformed buglers greeted the commander in chief, who emerged from Pioneer, his private carriage, balanced on the arm of his youngest son, John Roosevelt, smiling broadly and waving to a cheering crowd.
Nearly half a century later, at least one admirer could recall the day in great detail. A young sportscaster at Des Moines’s WHO radio station had been visibly thrilled as he hurried to the window of his offices on Walnut Street to take in the motorcade. “Franklin Roosevelt was the first president I ever saw,” Ronald Reagan told a gathering of Roosevelt family and New Dealers at a 1982 centennial celebration of the 32nd president’s birth.
Speaking in the East Room, Reagan, now the 40th president, paid tribute to the Democrat for whom he had voted four times — in 1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944. “Like Franklin Roosevelt, we know that for free men hope will always be a stronger force than fear, that we only fail when we allow ourselves to be boxed in by the limitations and errors of the past.” The president then offered a toast: to “Happy days — now, again, and always.”
The reference was unmistakable, for Franklin Roosevelt and the song “Happy Days Are Here Again” were inseparable in the political imaginations of Americans. The song entered the nation’s political consciousness at the Democratic National Convention at the Chicago Stadium in 1932. Roosevelt, who was seeking the presidential nomination, had planned to have “Anchors Aweigh” as his theme song, reminding delegates and listeners on the radio of his tenure as assistant secretary of the Navy during the Great War. From his command post at the Congress Hotel, Roosevelt adviser Louis Howe listened to his secretary, a fan of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” sing it out for him. Impressed, the wizened political sent word to the hall to change course: “Happy Days Are Here Again” was now the FDR standard.
In 1938, the drift toward chaos and bloodshed in Europe prompted the composer Irving Berlin to excavate a song he’d written in 1918, “God Bless America.” He arranged for the singer Kate Smith to perform it on her CBS radio show on Armistice Day 1938, and Smith would record the number in early 1939. In the late 1930s, fearing Hitler, listeners did not have to think hard about what she meant when she spoke of “the storm clouds” gathering “far across the sea” or “the night” that required “a light from above.” Woody Guthrie, though, heard something else in Berlin’s verses: a triumphalism that portrayed America simplistically and sentimentally. And so Guthrie wrote a reply. Initially titled “God Blessed America,” it became “This Land Is Your Land,” a song that grew in popularity during and after World War II. (By 1968, Robert Kennedy was suggesting that “This Land Is Your Land” ought to be the national anthem.)
In wartime, the simpler the song, the more powerful it was, not least because life under fire was so emotionally complicated. The most moving music of the war was the music that moved the troops themselves — songs of longing and loss, of love and hope. There was “We’ll Meet Again,” “You’ll Never Know,” and big band numbers by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and others. It was the age of such songs as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and Miller and the Andrews Sisters each had a hit with “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me).” Miller, whose “Moonlight Serenade” was a signature song, lobbied to join the military once America entered the war. (Born in 1904, he was in his late 30s.) Bing Crosby wrote the government a letter of recommendation, saying that Miller was “a very high type young man, full of resourcefulness, adequately intelligent, and a suitable type to command men or assist in organization.” Commissioned in the Army Air Force, Miller set out, he said, to “put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy into their hearts.” Regular military bands resisted Miller’s attempts to bring the music forward from the Great War to the 1940s. “Look, Captain Miller,” one is said to have complained, “we played those Sousa marches straight in the last war and we did all right, didn’t we?”
“You certainly did, Major,” Miller replied, according to the story. “But tell me one thing: Are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war, too?”
On a broadcast on Saturday, June 10, 1944, a few days after D-Day, he announced, “It’s been a big week for our side. Over on the beaches of Normandy our boys have fired the opening guns of the long-awaited drive to liberate the world.” The band’s opener that day was “Flying Home,” a jazz number by Lionel Hampton (Ella Fitzgerald would later sing a powerful version) that, for African-American GIs, signified a journey toward the kind of freedom at home they’d been fighting for abroad.
Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage on the afternoon of Thursday, April 12, 1945, in his cottage at Warm Springs, Georgia. As the president’s body was being moved to the train for the trip to Washington, a naval chief petty officer, Graham Jackson, tears streaming down his face, played “Going Home” on his accordion.
Woody Guthrie may have offered the most timeless memorial to the fallen Roosevelt. In a song addressed to Eleanor, Guthrie remembered FDR as a providential figure:
Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, don’t hang your head and cry;
His mortal clay is laid away, but his good work fills the sky;
This world was lucky to see him born.
There is, really, nothing more to say on the matter. The world was lucky to see him born.
Jon Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and author of The Soul of America (2018). Tim McGraw is a Grammy Award-winning country music artist.
From Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation by Jon Meacham & Tim McGraw, published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Merewether LLC and Tim McGraw.
This article is featured in the May/June 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.
—“Belafonte Gives It All He’s Got”
by Jeanne Van Holmes, April 20, 1957
“I’ll give it to you straight, Harry,” the agent said. “You haven’t got a prayer of getting anywhere. Number One, to go into folk singing would be committing professional suicide. Number Two, it just ain’t as easy to get bookings for Negroes. And Number Three, how come you’re so damned dedicated you won’t even slant these folk songs of yours to some special audience — men, women, teenagers, or the old-timers? Who do you think is going to listen to you — the folk?”
Evidently, there are plenty of “folk” in the United States, for today Harry Belafonte gets a warm welcome in every entertainment field, and his earnings have come close to a half-million dollars a year.
The critics, perhaps a little unnerved by his way of “singing as if his life hung in the balance,” have tagged him as “incandescent” and “irrepressible.” Harry himself put it this way: “I’d say it has taken me almost all my 30 years to be an ‘overnight success.’”
This article is featured in the March/April 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: © SEPS
superThe Motown sound was radio gold, and it turned out to work well in movies too. Berry Gordy Jr.’s record label turned out soul, R&B, and funk hits that have been used to set the tone in a host of movie scenes over the years. When a Motown song plays in your favorite movie, it’s hard not to sing and dance along. Here are 15 of the most memorable Motown movie moments.
1. “Good Morning Heartache” by Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues
Diana Ross sings Billie Holiday’s famous song in Motown’s biopic of the legendary jazz singer. She was nominated for an Oscar, and the soundtrack repopularized Holiday’s music as it hit number one on the Billboard chart.
2. “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” by G.C. Cameron in Cooley High
G.C. Cameron’s version of the soul song didn’t make much of a splash upon release in 1975, but its use in the funeral scene of Cooley High made it a cultural touchstone. Many others sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” over the years as a goodbye song, and Boyz II Men made a radio hit out of it in 1991.
3. “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder in The Thing
It’s the perfect song to turn up (even when a recent gunshot victim is yelling to turn the music down), and it’s the perfect song for a foreboding scene hinting at a strange presence on an Antarctic research camp.
4. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations in The Big Chill
Although its soundtrack is chock full of Motown hits, The Big Chill’s best musical moment comes as the group of friends finds solace in dancing to an old song during a difficult time. The song was included in American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Songs” program in 2004.
5. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder in The Woman in Red
Stevie Wonder’s 1984 megahit was the best-selling Motown song ever in the U.K. Gene Wilder’s film “The Woman in Red” included other original Wonder songs, like “Love Light in Flight” and some duets with Dionne Warwick.
6. “The Tracks of My Tears” by The Miracles in Platoon
After serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, Oliver Stone wrote a script called Break that he struggled for decades to get made into a movie. When he was finally successful, the film Platoon was roundly praised for its realistic portrayal of the Vietnam War, both in terms of horrific combat and scenes like this one that show companionship wrought from the conflict.
7. “Nowhere to Run” by Martha and the Vandellas in Good Morning, Vietnam
Robin Williams’ kooky performance as an Army radio deejay during the Vietnam War earned him his first Oscar nomination. The movie’s soundtrack is a spirited list of ’60s pop music, and it includes Martha and the Vandellas’ hit “Nowhere to Run.”
8. “Do You Love Me” by The Contours in Dirty Dancing
Baby Houseman gets her first taste of dirty dancing, watermelon in hand, at a secret staff party in the Catskills. The Contours were an early Motown success, and Dirty Dancing renewed their popularity in 1987.
9. “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
Whoopi Goldberg trains a choir of nuns to perform Motown hits in Sister Act. In the sequel, they’re seasoned soul sisters with a heavenly Temptations routine that more than does the song justice. Kathy Najimy and Mary Wickes are comedy gold.
10. “Baby Love” by Diana Ross and the Supremes in Jackie Brown
Quentin Tarantino’s love of funk and soul music is on display in this 1997 tribute to blaxploitation films. Hattie Winston serenades an aloof Robert De Niro with a classic Supremes song in full royal blue sparkling garb in a short but memorable scene.
11. “Machine Gun” by The Commodores in Boogie Nights
The Commodores’s dynamite clavinet instrumental was used widely as a theme in the 1970s and 80s (as well as Beastie Boys’s “Hey Ladies”). Porn star Dirk Diggler shows off his disco moves in his new platform shoes to the song in Paul Thomas Anderson’s chaotic Boogie Nights.
12. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in Stepmom
The 1999 drama about a family being ripped apart and mended back together uses one of Motown’s best duets. As a woman who has just received a cancer diagnosis along with news that her ex-husband will remarry soon, Jackie reconnects with her children by lip syncing Marvin Gaye’s and Tammi Terrell’s hit.
13. “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye in High Fidelity
In his breakout film role, Jack Black sings Marvin Gaye’s sensual masterpiece “Let’s Get It On.” The song has been used in countless commercials and movies to set a sexy tone, but never was it sung quite like it was by the Tenacious D frontman.
14. “Super Freak” by Rick James in Little Miss Sunshine
Unbeknownst to the rest of their family, junior beauty pageant hopeful Olive and her grandfather prepare a dance routine to Rick James’s risqué funk hit about a “very kinky girl” that you “don’t take home to mother.”
15. “I Want You Back” by Jackson 5 in Guardians of the Galaxy
The old school soundtracks of the popular Marvel franchise feature several Motown hits, but the most iconic among them is perhaps “I Want You Back,” playing to a dancing Baby Groot in his adorable resurrection scene.
Featured image: Shutterstock
Read more from Maya Sinha’s column, Wit’s End.
I was in a department store, shopping for items the Victorians called “unmentionables,” when a 1992 song from the British band The Cure began to play.
From hidden speakers, under the bright retail lights, lead vocalist Robert Smith — a pale Goth in eyeliner, lipstick, and a tangle of ink-black hair — sang the opening bars of “Friday I’m in Love.”
This song was deeply familiar from my high school and college years. Back then, Smith was a romantic figure: a moody, sensitive rebel who fronted an alt-rock band. Though he strove to look three-quarters dead, he would not be caught dead in the women’s underwear section of the flagship store in a suburban mall.
Yet here he was in 2020. A wave of cognitive dissonance crashed over me. Why was the store piping in The Cure, a poignant reminder of my vanished youth? Was nothing sacred?
For Americans born between 1965 and 1980, the generation known as Gen X, this is now a common experience while shopping. We select lettuce from a superstore crisper to the rapturous vocals of Belinda Carlisle in “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” (1987). We try on sensible shoes to the late Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries singing “Linger” (1993). Checking our tween into the orthodontist’s office, we’re assailed with INXS’s darkly urgent “Devil Inside” (1987) or REO Speedwagon’s earnest “Keep On Loving You” (1980). We gas up our SUVs to the sound of giddy infatuation in Sting’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” (1981).
Decades later, these 1980s and 1990s pop songs still pack a wallop. In a recent essay, Gen X writer Meghan Daum wrote that she’s stopped listening to four decades of pop music, songs that evoke so many bittersweet memories that she now avoids them “as if avoiding pain.”
These one-time radio hits are powerfully evocative, Daum writes, because music “embeds itself into our emotions, often burrowing far deeper than the memories of the events that spurred those emotions. From there, the songs we love become the half-life of our emotions. They are whatever’s left of whatever was going on at the time.”
For people in their 40s and 50s, pop songs conjure memories of childhood, junior high, high school, summers, friends, significant others, college, jobs, holidays, weddings, divorces, and family events. Just little things like that. No biggie.
But if you’re trying to avoid the pain (or mixed feelings) these songs evoke, too bad: The hits of 1980-1999 are playing on continuous loop at the grocery store, a cavernous building you disconsolately roam four times a week. Good luck buying organic peanut butter without crying, Mom! Have fun picking out dog food while tears of regret and forever-lost chances burn your eyes!
The cruel irony of listening to bouncy pop songs from junior year while tossing headache medicine and nutritional supplements called Change-O-Life into the shopping cart is apparently lost on the corporate overlords who devised this torture. Why have they done this, desecrating our memories by canning our music?
Piping music into public spaces was the brainchild of U.S. Army Major General George O. Squier, a renowned inventor who devised a means of playing phonograph records over electric power lines. In 1934, after radio took off, Squier founded the Muzak Corporation, which piped commercial-free music into hotels and restaurants. “The music itself was newly recorded versions of popular songs, but now produced with purposefully mellow, orchestral arrangements,” historian Peter Blecha wrote in 2012.
Research in the 1940s showed that music could influence behavior, and during World War II, Muzak was used to motivate factory and military workers. In the postwar years, the goal shifted to keeping customers in stores, with “soothing, saccharine sounds being pumped into dentists’ offices, grocery stores, airports, and shopping malls all across the nation and overseas,” Blecha explains.
On their journey to the moon in 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts calmed themselves by listening to Muzak. Back on Earth, however, soporific versions of hit songs became known as “elevator music.” In 2011, Mood Media announced that it had acquired Muzak for $345 million, adding to its portfolio of commercial music services for retailers, hotels, restaurants, gyms, and banks. Now supplying music for 470,000 commercial locations around the globe, the company was “delivering unique experiences to millions of people daily.”
Suddenly, elevator music was out; nostalgic pop playlists were in.
In 2020, music still affects shoppers’ moods, but not necessarily in a good way. We Gen Xers feel vaguely insulted when the soundtracks of our youth are cynically used to sell us things. We are this close to buying everything we need online, having it delivered by drones, and listening to our 1980s playlists when we want to, how we want to, in our own homes!
Retailers should take a page from video game designers, who similarly want to keep players engaged for as long as possible. The Legend of Zelda games have gorgeous, critically acclaimed soundtracks, setting the bar for ambient music that’s enjoyable for people of all ages. Why can’t we have original mood music in stores? (Attention, composition majors! A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.)
Until that day, I’ll have to listen to The Cure while going about my mundane errands, draining the music of all meaning. It makes me want to protest in some small but visible way, perhaps by wearing head-to-toe black, dying my hair with shoe polish, and piercing my earlobe with a nail.
By the time I get out of a store that’s recycled my memories to sell toothpaste and dish soap, I’m feeling a little Goth myself.
Featured image: Robert Smith of The Cure, 1985 (AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)
The 1985 American Music Awards made history for a few reasons. Lionel Richie won six awards, Prince took home three, and Michael Jackson was shut out. But that was just the opening act. Later that night, Richie, Jackson, and a number of other artists finished cutting a record that turned out to be a massive worldwide hit while throwing a focus on a humanitarian crisis. Here are 10 things you didn’t know, or maybe didn’t remember, about “We Are the World.”
1. It Followed the Lead of Band Aid.
The first big charity single of the 80s was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Released under a supergroup named Band Aid that was organized by Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats and star of the film Pink Floyd’s The Wall) and Midge Ure, the song featured members of U2, Wham!, Culture Club, Duran Duran, and a number of other stars from the UK. Geldof would perform on “We Are the World” as part of the chorus and later organize Live Aid and Live 8 with Ure.
2. Harry Belafonte Provided the American Spark.
Belafonte had the notion to put together a similar charity record using the biggest stars in America. Belafonte pitched the idea to music manager Ken Kragen, who took the idea to his clients, Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie. They brought in Stevie Wonder and producer Quincy Jones. Jones recruited Michael Jackson. By then, the momentum was unstoppable.
3. Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie Did the Writing.
The official video for We Are the World. (Uploaded to YouTube by USAforAfricaVEVO)
To record a charity song … you have to have the song. Richie and Jackson teamed up, working on it for a week. Jackson took a version to Jones and Richie that included instrumentation and a chorus. They ended up reaching their final version of the song on January 21, 1985. Recording began the next day at Lion Share Recording Studio, which was owned by Rogers. The final night of vocals with soloists and the group chorus was set for the A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood after the AMAs when everyone would be in one place and would be more easily assembled and managed.
4. Prince Was Supposed to Be There.
While accounts vary as to why Prince ultimately wasn’t involved, the original plan had been to feature a section with he and Michael Jackson trading parts with each other. One story goes that Prince had to bail overzealous bodyguards out of jail after the AMAs, an event that was later parodied on Saturday Night Live in a sketch featuring Hulk Hogan and Mr. T as the bodyguards and Billy Crystal as Prince. Regardless, Prince and the Revolution did contribute a separate song to the We Are The World album, a number titled “4 the Tears in Your Eyes.”
5. And Madonna Wanted to Be.
For her part, Madonna was just making her commercial breakthrough, having just hit #1 for the first time with “Like A Virgin.” Jackson invited her, but her management advised her to decline because she’d have to cancel dates on her “Virgin Tour.” The thought was that, as a somewhat new artist with a big fresh hit, she needed to stick to the plan. It ended up working out for her, as her next single “Material Girl,” hit #2, and “Crazy for You” would replace “We Are the World” at #1 later in the spring.
6. One Sign Solved a lot of Problems.
When the artists began to gather, they found a sign on the studio door that read, “Check your egos at the door.” It was a funny and humbling reminder that the group was gathered for a larger purpose. It must have worked; while there were individual debates about how to sing certain parts or conferences over how to deliver certain lines, the group worked together all night, completing the song by the following morning.
7. The Cast Represented Multiple Generations.
The assembled array of talent was pretty incredible and spanned a number of genres, styles, and decades. Belafonte and Ray Charles were something of the elder statesmen. Jackson, Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross were among those that came up at Motown in the 60s and early 70s. Bob Dylan was, well, Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen, Steve Perry, and Lindsay Buckingham, among others, represented the rock side, for example, while Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings brought in the country. In all, more than 45 voices are heard on the track, with 21 having identifiable solo bits. The wide net led to some genuinely thrilling, unique moments, as when Dylan and Charles sing together.
8. Why in the name of the Blues Brothers was Dan Aykroyd There?
The way that Aykroyd himself tells the story, it was purely by accident. Though Aykroyd did have a music background as “Elwood Blues,” one half of The Blues Brothers with the late John Belushi, he basically wound up at the recording session by happenstance. Aykroyd was looking for a money manager and spoke to a talent manager that asked him if he wanted to join the group. So he did.
9. The Impact Was Immediate.
The single, credited to USA for Africa, hit stores in March; the initial pressing of 800,000 copies sold out in days. The single would go on to sell 8 million in the U.S. The song and the album would generate more than $75 million toward famine relief. The song has been updated at various times and used for other purposes, such as relief in Haiti.
10. The Impact Continues.
Pink Floyd reunited with Roger Waters at Live 8 for global action against poverty. (Uploaded to YouTube by Pink Floyd)
The one-two punch of Band-Aid and USA for Africa provided the launch-pad for Geldof’s Live Aid, the first of the mega-charity concerts; held in London and Philadelphia, it was broadcast to nearly 2 billion people on July 13, 1985. The “World” session also gave Willie Nelson the idea for Farm Aid, the concert series aimed at helping farmers in America.
Remarkably, the “World” song and album still generate money for the charity today. It kickstarted a wave of charitable projects as well. The contemporaneous “Tears Are Not Enough” by a similar Canadian supergroup called Northern Lights (which included Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Anne Murray, and Geddy Lee of Rush, among others) was also included on the album. The heavy metal community put together their own famine-relief record, Hear’n Aid, the following year; it featured artists like Ronnie James Dio and members of Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, Motley Crue, and more, while boasting an ensemble of lead guitarists in addition to the vocalists. A wave of further singles continued throughout the 80s, targeted at a variety of issues. “That’s What Friends Are For” by Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight was a #1 hit for AmFAR (American Federation for AIDS Research), while “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid brought together artists from rock, rap, punk, jazz, funk, Latin, and world music to shine a light on the problems in South Africa. Charitable singles still abound, with the most recent high-visibility project being Lil Dicky’s star-filled “Earth” from 2019.