David Byrne’s American Utopia
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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
People enter reality competition shows for a variety of reasons. Some want to find an audience for their talent. Some want to find true love. And some want money, fame, power, and the ability absolutely one-up everyone at class reunions. But for every person who “wins” a competition show, there are dozens who didn’t get that final honor at the end of the season. Plenty return to anonymity. But in the case of a select few, not winning may have been the best thing that never happened to them. Here are “reality show losers” who won in reality.
1. Jennifer Hudson
Hudson came to public attention in the 2004 season of American Idol. At one point, when viewer voting placed her, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and LaToya London in the lower half of finalists, Elton John himself blew his stack. Though Hudson finished seventh, it looks like Sir Elton was right. Using the show as a launch pad, Hudson went on to huge success on stage, screen, and record. Her first two solo albums went gold, and she took home both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her debut film role as Effie White in Dreamgirls. Hudson continues to record, appear occasionally as a judge on The Voice, and act; she plays Aretha Franklin in the forthcoming biopic, Respect, which is already generating awards talk.
2. Chris Daughtry
Another early exiter from American Idol, Chris Daughtry placed fourth in the fifth season. Daughtry stood out from his fellow contestants by sticking with his distinctly rock persona in a crowded pop field. After the show, he formed a band named Daughtry, and group’s self-titled debut raced to #1 on the album chart, partially on the strength of the single “It’s Not Over.” A Grammy nominee and occasional actor, Daughtry trails only Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood in terms of Idol alums with the most album sales. In addition to music, Daughtry is a talented visual artist and comics fan; he drew a variant cover for Batman #50 in 2016.
3. Britney Spears
It’s fairly common knowledge that Britney Spears was part of a Mickey Mouse Club cast that was overflowing with future stars, including Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and future NSYNC bandmates Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez. But before she joined the cast in 1992, she took a swing at Star Search. The original 1983 to 1995 run of the series was the launch pad for a wide array of stars, giving the first national TV exposure to LeAnn Rimes and Broadway star Sutton Foster, among others. Although a 10-year-old Spears won her initial week, she was knocked off the show a week later. After the Club, Spears signed with Jive Records and went on to become the best-selling teen artist of all time. With six #1 albums, Spears has sold over 100 million albums worldwide. This year, Rolling Stone listed “…Baby One More Time” as #1 on their list of Greatest Debut Singles of All Time. Though she’s gotten press in recent years for her turbulent personal life, Spears maintained a successful and lucrative Vegas residency for several years, only halting it when her father had health problems. She also has a billion dollar perfume brand.
4. Justin Timberlake
Like Spears, Timberlake did his time for the Mouse. He also took the stage on Star Search, but leaning into a country persona when he did; sporting a cowboy hat and going by Justin Randall (his middle name), the guy we’d all call JT didn’t pull out the victory. However, he did go on to megastardom with NSYNC, as a solo artist, and an actor. NSYNC remains one of the best-selling groups ever, and Timberlake’s solo career kicked off with two Grammys for his 10-million-selling Justified. Timberlake has become the best-selling male solo artist in the history of the Billboard Mainstream Top 40. Not bad for the kid in the hat.
5. Christina Aguilera
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a youngster goes on Star Search, but gets eliminated, yet bounces back with a run on the Mickey Mouse Club. Aguilera’s trajectory echoed that of her castmates, and she made her solo debut as part of the same teen pop boom that Spears and NSYNC rode. Her self-titled debut, which featured “Genie in a Bottle,” was a smash and netted her the Best New Artist Grammy. Aguilera has sold over 75 million records and is routinely counted on lists of greatest vocalists. She has balanced her ongoing recording career with acting roles and coaching for six seasons on The Voice. As a teen, Aguilera recorded the song “Reflection” for the original Disney animated film Mulan, and she returned this year to record a new version for the new live-action film.
6. Beyoncé and Kelly
“Lose My Breath” by Destiny’s Child (Uploaded to YouTube by Destiny’s Child)
Here are two Star Search contestants who didn’t go on to the Mickey Mouse Club, but you can agree that it didn’t slow them down. Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland were members of the group Girl’s Tyme, which appeared on Star Search in 1993. After Beyoncé’s father, Matthew, took over management of the group, they went through several name and line-up changes before Beyoncé, Kelly, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson signed to Columbia in 1996 as Destiny’s Child. The group went through more changes before settling on the classic line-up up of Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle Williams; they remain one of the most successful trios and “girl groups” ever, earning 14 Grammy nominations and selling over 60 million records. As a solo artist, Kelly Rowland has sold over 40 million records, whereas Beyoncé has become a legit phenomenon as one of the biggest artists in the world, selling in excess of 100 million records.
7. Rupert Boneham
How is it possible to lose Survivor not once, but FOUR times, and yet still be beloved enough to have the audience just vote to GIVE you a million dollars? You’d have to ask Rupert Boneham. Boneham had worked with troubled kids in Indiana prior to his first tenure on the show, during the Pearl Islands season. Boneham’s enormous strength, pirate mentality, and general sense of humor made him an immediate fan-favorite. He made such an impression during the first season that he was quickly added to the All-Stars season that followed, making him the only player at the time to play in back-to-back seasons. After the season, producers held a special vote based on four fan-favorites who didn’t win, and 85 percent of voters gave the million dollar prize to Boneham. Since his first appearance, Boneham has become a popular guest on talk and reality shows; he and his wife competed on The Amazing Race in 2019. He started the mentorship program Rupert’s Kids, and even ran for governor in Indiana as a Libertarian in 2012, losing to eventual governor (and current vice president) Mike Pence.
8. One Direction
Like a teen-pop Voltron, five individual contestants on the 2010 edition of the U.K.’s The X-Factor joined into a brand-new record-moving creation. Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, and Harry Styles hit dead ends in the solo “Boys” portion of the competition, but were invited to form a group to continue on in the competition. Dubbed “One Direction” by Styles, the group became immediately popular on social media and made it to third place in the overall competition. 1D, as they’re commonly called, became the first group to have their first four albums debut at #1 on the U.S. albums chart. Although Malik left in 2015 and the band went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2016 as the various members pursued (mostly successful) solo projects, the group has sold more than 70 million records around the world.
9. Fifth Harmony
Fifth Harmony has a very similar origin story to One Direction. Five contestants on the 2012 U.S. season of The X Factor were again united in a single group, and again finished third. The five members were Ally Brooke, Normani, Dinah Jane, Lauren Jauregui, and Camila Cabello. Though not as successful in the traditional album format, the group was a smash on digital (selling 7 million songs) and streaming (over 1.6 billion on-demand streams of their music). Cabello departed for a very successful solo career in December of 2016. By 2018, the group announced their own indefinite hiatus, with each former member working on solo music.
10. Amy Schumer
There’s no doubt that Amy Schumer was on her way before her 2007 stint on Last Comic Standing. She had already been doing stand-up in the clubs for three years and had recorded an episode of Live at Gotham for Comedy Central. But LCS put her in front of millions of new potential fans. She advanced to the finals and finished fourth, but the show and her years of groundwork gave her the momentum to break to the next level. For the next few years, Schumer worked furiously, putting in appearances in Celebrity Roast episodes and popping up in a variety of projects. Her real ascension began in 2012, when she appeared in three films and put out her extremely popular and critically acclaimed comedy special, Mostly Sex Stuff. The next year, she launched her much-loved sketch series Inside Amy Schumer. Her expansive body of work has seen her nominated for Golden Globes, Grammys, and Tonys, and her 2016 memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, was a bestseller.
Featured image: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock
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
As a young lady, she studied for a career in fashion. In time, she would set the fashions. In her teens, Diane Ross joined The Primettes, a girl group that would later transform into The Supremes. Her performing name adjusted to Diana, Ross and her groupmates would conquer the charts for most of the 1960s; indeed, they had the last #1 hit of the decade. With the 1970s, Ross turned toward a solo career, and the hits just kept coming. 50 years ago today, her self-titled debut hit stores, reminding the world that whether she’s alone or in a group, there’s only one Diana Ross.
Ross joined The Primettes; the girl-group was a spin-off of The Primes (two of whom, Paul Williams and Eddie Kendrick, would co-found The Temptations). Ross’s groupmates included Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson. Ross’s childhood friend Smokey Robinson would eventually get them an audition with Motown Records; the three, along with Barbara Martin, were signed to the label in January of 1961. Motown head Berry Gordy wanted them to change their name, and Ballard chose The Supremes from a list (mainly because it didn’t end it “ette”). Between the signing and their commercial breakthrough, Martin left, and Ross, Wilson, and Ballard remained a trio. Their first Top 40 hit came in 1963 with “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” Gordy appointed Ross as the lead singer after the song’s success.
In 1964, The Supremes hit #1 with “Where Did Our Love Go,” kicking off an amazingly successful run. Their next four singles (“Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again”) went #1. They went back to #1 seven more times in the 1960s. Midway through their run, Gordy renamed the band Diana Ross & The Supremes, a move designed to pull in bigger performance fees (as the label could charge more for a name out front plus a backing group).
Ross’s exit for a solo career was plotted by Gordy for more than a year. Even on the group’s own TV specials, Ross had solo spotlights; she also sang on other programs alone. The notion was that if they spun Ross off as a successful individual act, they could still maintain The Supremes as a viable entity in their own right. In many ways, the first solo album for Ross was seen as a trial balloon to see how well she was received on her own.
The solo debut was a combination of Motown classics and new material. Several of the songs from both categories were written by the singer-songwriter team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson , who also produced the record with Johnny Bristol. The lead single, the Ashford & Simpson penned “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” was released ahead of the album in the spring and landed in the Top 20. After its June 19 release, the album itself cracked the charts in July. A few days later, Ross released the second single from the record, her version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough;” the Ashford & Simpson tune had been a Top 20 duet for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967. Ross’s version went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance while selling over 1 million copies.
In the years that followed, Ross built an incredibly successful career that combined music and acting. She expanded her sound beyond the confines to pop and R&B, incorporating standard, Broadway covers, disco, rock, and more into her repertoire, delving into different sounds and influences on her records, live albums, and TV specials. She mined hits from films in which she appeared, including Lady Sings the Blues, Mahogany, and The Wiz. Ross is the only female artist in history to have #1 songs as a solo artist, a trio member (The Supremes), one half of a duet (1981’s “Endless Love” with Lionel Richie), and part of an ensemble (USA for Africa’s ”We Are the World” ). She also has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one with The Supremes and one solo. She’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with The Supremes and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016 .
As recently as 2019, Ross was still scoring hits on the Dance chart with new versions and remixes of older material. It’s a testament to Ross’s talent, and Gordy’s willingness to take a chance, that she’s been able remain musically vital and relevant whether in front of a group, or taking the stage all by herself.
Featured image: Tinseltown / 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)
Some performers make a splash and fade quickly. Others have long careers that taper off. The Welsh singer born Thomas John Woodward, known around the world as Tom Jones, boasts one of the longest careers in music, with divergences and new permutations that keep him in the spotlight year after year. He’s reinvented himself when the need has arisen, and he still knows how to swing the lead. The fairly remarkable career of Tom Jones began in earnest 55 years ago today with the release of his debut album, Along Came Jones, or, as it’s since been retitled, It’s Not Unusual.
Born the son of a coal miner and his wife in 1940, Woodward got interested in singing at an early age, performing at school and weddings. Tuberculosis kept him bedridden for the better part of two years beginning when he was 12, during which he spent a great deal of time listening to music. In his teens, Woodward cultivated a number of his early blues and American rock and roll influences, including Elvis, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson. When his girlfriend, Linda, became pregnant when they were 16, the two married.
By 1963, he was fronting a band called Tommy Scott and the Senators. Gordon Mills, a manager out of London, saw the group and recruited the singer, taking him to the city and giving him the stage name “Tom Jones.” Mills enabled Jones to land a deal with Decca Records; his second single, released in January of 1965, would become the centerpiece of his first album and an international hit. That song was “It’s Not Unusual.” It went to #10 in the U.S. and #1 in the U.K. The press lumped Jones in with the ongoing British Invasion of groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and Jones was soon appearing on American television. His May 1965 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was timed with the release of the Along Came Jones album, which hit stores on May 21, 1965.
Mills made quick work of getting Jones in front of audiences across media. He set Jones up to sing the title tunes for the films What’s New, Pussycat? and the James Bond installment Thunderball. Jones won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1966. Around this time, Jones began shifting his repertoire, singing songs that would qualify as rock, blues, country, or easy listening as the venue or notion suited it. The strategy kept him from being tied to a single style and kept him active on the charts in a number of countries.
Tom Jones dueting with Janis Joplin on This is Tom Jones in 1969. (Uploaded to YouTube by Tom Jones)
In 1967, Jones “discovered” Las Vegas as a lucrative recurring performance location. By then, he’d become good friends with Elvis and the two frequently met up in the city. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Jones recalled meeting Elvis; he said, ““He said to me, ‘How the hell do you sing like that?’ And I said, ‘Listening to you, for one thing.’” Over time, Jones would focus more on the financially rewarding big ticket shows and less time in the recording studio. Between the late 1960s and 2011, Jones performed at least one show in the city every week. In 1969, Jones crossed over to television success with the variety program This is Tom Jones, which lasted until 1971.
Jones saw his popularity wax and wane in the 1970s, but he scored lasting hits like “She’s a Lady” and “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow.” For the first half of the 1980s, Jones focused on country music, producing a number of hits in the genre. After Mills died in 1986, Jones’s son Mark took over the singer’s managerial duties. Jones re-emerged on the pop charts in a big way in 1988 when he teamed up with the synth group Art of Noise to cover Prince’s Kiss. The song went Top 40 in the U.S., Top 5 in the U.K., and won Jones and Art of Noise the MTV Video Music Award for Breakthrough Video for their effects-laden clip. The following year saw Jones receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jones was also introduced to yet another generation of fans when “It’s Not Unusual” became the official song of “The Carlton” on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Jones even made a guest appearance on an episode.
Even with the huge changes in music in the 1990s, Jones managed to stay current. His album The Lead and How to Swing It was a hit in 1993. He played himself in a memorable scene in Mars Attacks! and continued to record music for films like The Full Monty. His 1999 duets album Reload included partners like his contemporary Van Morrison, but also younger acts like Stereophonics and Portishead; it sold 4 million copies around the world, went #1 in the U.K., and served up five U.K. Top 40 singles. Jones never slowed down in the 2000s, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 for contributions to music. In a 2016 interview with The Washington Post, Jones talked about his substantial amount of cover songs and how he interprets other people’s work; he said, “You can’t lose the essence of a song. I try to enhance it more than anything else. Some of them are similar to the original, but not a copy . . . You’ve got to kick them around a bit to see what can you add to it or do something different to it, so you’re just not copying something somebody has already done.”
Since 2012, Jones has been one of the coaches on the popular U.K. version of the singing contest show The Voice. Jones’s wife Linda, Lady Woodward, died in 2016 from cancer. Though Jones famously philandered through many years of their union, they had remained married for 59 years. Their only child was Mark, though Jones did father another son during an extramarital affair in the 1980s.
Tom Jones occupies a unique space in the musical continuum. He’s sold over 100 million records and has produced work that extends to nearly every popular genre, including gospel. He’s released an impressive number of albums and singles, but those numbers pale compared to the sheer amount of live performances he’s done in his career. He’s shown a mad talent for reinvention that’s only outmatched by the power of his still mighty baritone. It’s tempting to ask what he might do next, but it’s not unusual for Jones to do the unexpected.
Featured image: Fabio Diena / Shutterstock.com
Bob Dylan was already familiar with controversy by the time he headlined the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Two years earlier, the up-and-coming folk star had walked off The Ed Sullivan Show when the network tried to meddle with his set. He tackled civil rights in his songs and backed that up with activism. When Dylan took the stage at Newport, he shocked folk traditionalists by doing something unexpected: he played an electric guitar. While listeners might have known from listening to his records that Dylan was going in that direction, the move still angered some in the folk establishment. It’s no small irony then that Dylan found his career rejuvenated in the 1990s by making the simplest of moves: going unplugged.
Throughout the 1960s, Bob Dylan released classic album after classic album. He was a driver of taking folk into the mainstream and combining it with other forms. Rolling Stone magazine ranked his song “Like a Rolling Stone” as the Greatest Song of All Time. He overcame a motorcycle accident in 1966 to make more classic recordings, appear with Johnny Cash on Cash’s television variety show, and headline the Isle of Wight Festival.
Bob Dylan with The Band from The Last Waltz (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)
The 1970s were up and down for Dylan. Though some reviews were brutal, he created material that’s widely seen as some of his greatest work, like “Hurricane,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” and the album Blood on the Tracks. He toured extensively with The Band; their farewell concert in 1976 was documented in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. Toward the end of the decade, he converted to Christianity and did a trio of albums that were heavily influenced by his turn of faith; 1979’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” from this period won him the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance Grammy.
Continuing into the next decade, Dylan received more notice and acclaim for collaborations than solo work (in most cases). While his live album with the Grateful Dead, Dylan and The Dead, received negative notices, he was reintroduced to a younger generation as part of “We Are the World.” He also participated in the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City” and played at Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985. A casual remark he made on stage that some money should also go to help American farmers led Willie Nelson to launch Farm-Aid. Dylan toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and that friendship with Petty was a key to the formation of the Traveling Wilburys, which featured them, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison. His final album of the ’80s, Oh Mercy, received solid reviews.
Dylan spent a chunk of the early ’90s doing cover albums of traditional songs. When MTV came calling for Dylan to do an episode of MTV Unplugged, it seemed like a natural. Launched in 1989, the Unplugged program took musicians and put them in an intimate setting with a live audience as they performed (generally) without electric instruments. The format was a big hit for the channel, with several episodes receiving vast critical acclaim while producing albums that sold spectacularly in a number of cases. Among the most celebrated episodes to that point were installments that featured R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, Eric Clapton, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. Dylan recorded his installment over two nights in November of 1994 at Sony Music Studios in New York City.
When the album was released 25 years ago this week, it was an immediate success. It went Gold in the United States, hitting #23 on the album charts; it did even better in the U.K., where it made it to #10. Dylan had considered leaning on covers and traditional tunes, but MTV persuaded him to play his more familiar songs, resulting in something akin to a “greatest hits” package. The irony of the episode and subsequent album is that the man who scandalized the folk world by plugging in had revived his career by unplugging. His next original album, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, was considered an artistic comeback; it was a Top Ten platinum seller in the States and earned him the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Since that time, Dylan has continued to work, tour, write, and release new and archive material. His Bootleg series, compiling alternate takes and songs left off of albums, has produced many volumes. He’s been given nearly every award you can conceive of, including a Kennedy Center Honor, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On March 26, 2020, he released “Murder Most Foul” on his YouTube channel; it’s a 17-minute song about the Kennedy assassination. Another new song, “I Contain Multitudes,” followed on the channel on April 17.
Dylan’s MTV Unplugged appearance and album represented something a sea change in his career. It introduced him (again) to a younger generation and gave him a launch pad toward creating new and relevant material. He seems to have struck a balance between acclaimed icon and producer of new and relevant work. Whatever the future holds, and however he plays, it’s hard to deny that Dylan has always been electric.
Featured image: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com.