Thursday, August 25, 2011

Rock 'n' Roll 101: How to Handle a Dead Star

Originally published in my "Aural Fixation" column on on Aug. 25, 2011. See original post here.

image from

April 10, 1994 was my 27th birthday. That same week my generation’s greatest musical icon – Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – ended his life with the same number of candles on his recent birthday cake. The music press went into high gear reporting the shock of Cobain’s tragic ending while simultaneously reflecting on its inevitability. After all, he was a troubled soul with a history of substance abuse, failed rehab stints, overdoses, and suicide attempts.

It didn’t take long before finger pointing began. In their grief, family, friends, and fans were reluctant to accept that their loved one died by his own hand. It was easier to blame someone else. Cobain’s marriage to Courtney Love was less than idyllic and she was loathed by many in the Nirvana community. This made her an obvious scapegoat. Eventually, conspiracy theorists floated the idea that Cobain’s death wasn’t a suicide at all, but that Love had him murdered.

While the music community mourned the loss of one of its giants, the spin moved on to Cobain’s legacy. He’d only lived long enough to spearhead three proper studio albums with Nirvana, but in the process was hailed as a revolutionary who’d birthed a new genre of music. Should he be immortalized alongside other musical icons who died at age 27? Was it fair to utter his name in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and Robert Johnson?

These are all plays straight out of the Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 handbook, specifically the chapter on how to handle a rock star who checks out in his or her prime. It goes like this. First, express shock over Young Rock Star’s death and report on the outpouring of love and respect from the musical community. While that reality is still sinking in, switch gears completely and report on the inevitability of said Rock Star’s demise. After all, in light of his or her habits and lifestyle, who didn’t see this coming?

Next, the public wants answers. Not only should they be offered gory and gruesome details as if this were an episode of CSI or some other crime investigation show, but supplied with detailed exploits of the Young Rock Star’s last days.

The fans also need a target upon whom to vent their anger. Why wasn’t the record company babysitting its star more? Shouldn’t the family have done more to intervene? How about that destructive relationship? Sure the Young Rock Star may have exhibited every sign of a death wish, but can’t we ultimately blame someone else for this?

With Young (now Dead) Rock Star barely in the grave, it’s time to focus on his or her legacy. After all, our beloved hero has been dead for days! It’s about time we move on and figure out our idol’s place in the whole of musical history. How should this Dead Young Rock Star be remembered? Also, to generate controversy, plenty of press should be afforded to detractors who callously lambast Young Rock Star as overrated.

The final matter is two-fold: 1) how can Dead Young Rock Star be immortalized with such a slim discography and; 2) how can record companies shamelessly profit on Dead Young Rock Star’s death by raiding the vaults for unreleased material?

Amy Winehouse’s recent death required anyone associated with the recording industry or music journalism to dust off their Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 manuals. A quick overview shows her story to be eerily reminiscent of Cobain’s. Tabloids salivated over her exploits with substance abuse, failed rehab attempts, and a not quite two-car-garage-and-picket-fence marriage to Blake Fielder-Civil. It didn’t take long before Winehouse’s father publicly blamed his daughter’s death on the ex-husband because he had introduced Amy to drugs.

Conflicting accounts emerged regarding events in the days leading up to her death. Had she gone on a drug-buying spree just the night before? Had a physician just proclaimed her to be in good health? Did she die because she was fighting so hard to overcome her demons that her body collapsed from alcohol withdrawl? Posing these questions naturally draws out anyone who ever partied with Winehouse, sat in on a recording session, or hung out with her in a seedy bar. All of them weigh in with their takes on what she was really like.

Even with the public still grieving, talk turned to Winehouse’s status in Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven. Does she deserve enshrinement alongside other musicians who passed on to that great gig in the sky, with only 27 years on planet Earth?

The matter of her slim two-album discography led detractors to say no. The jazzy Frank (2003) was critically hailed, but certainly not considered a game changer. The 2006 follow-up, Back to Black, was hailed as a landmark of both retro-soul and neo-soul. No, I’m not sure how it can be both, either. Whatever it is genre-wise, is Back to Black truly deserving of the “classic album” tag?

Whatever title was latched to her sound, it became the consensus that Winehouse launched a wave of white, British, female R&B/pop singers like Adele, Duffy, and Florence & the Machine.

Finally, there’s the “What will the record companies do next?” route. Winehouse hadn’t been dead a week before stories flooded the Internet about what was or wasn’t in the vaults that might see the light of day. Depending on the account, there’s the “let’s respect the family’s wishes” angle or the idea that if there’s a tape of Winehouse farting, let’s release it to the public – you know, because we deserve to hear it all.

Are there three albums worth of material? Is it just a handful of demos? When someone recently broke into her house, how much music did they steal? Will something be released before the end of the year? I think of the song “Paint a Vulgar Picture” by the Smiths: “At the record company meeting/ On their hands a dead star/ And oh, the plans they weave/ And oh, the sickening greed.”

What gets overlooked amidst the sensationalism are detailed expositions on what led to the tragedy. Why does our entertainment culture salivate over both the construction and destruction of its stars? Is the same quality that drives attention seekers to the spotlight what also causes them to self-destruct?

History is littered with artistic geniuses who could barely run their personal lives even as the world worshiped them. The urge to create is often a double-edged sword saddled with a propensity to destroy. Our greatest musical legends are often troubled souls who likely would have had difficult lives in or out of the limelight.

Through it all, however, we should never lose sight of some basics. The Rock ‘n’ Roll 101 Handbook doesn’t acknowledge that its Dead Young Rock Stars had parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends. They had their problems but were adored by millions. They made music which touched people’s souls and changed people’s lives. The Kurt Cobains, Amy Winehouses, and other musical geniuses who walked this planet for far too short a time deserve to be embraced. They were flawed, but they were also beloved.

R.I.P., Dead Young Rock Stars.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nickolas Ashford: 1942-2011

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Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson

August 22, 2011: Songwriter, producer, and performer Nickolas Ashford died of complications from throat cancer at age 70. He was born in Fairfield, South Carolina, on May 4, 1942. He met Valerie Simpson in 1963 and they began working together as writers and performers. They married in 1974.

In the mid-‘60s, the pair composed hits for Aretha Franklin, the Fifth Dimension, Ronnie Milsap, Maxine Brown, the Shirelles, and Chuck Jackson. In 1966, they scored a major break when Ray Charles took his cover of the Coasters’ “Let’s Go Get Stoned” (written by Ashford & Simpson) to #1 on the R&B charts.

Their work with Charles brought them to the attention of Motown’s Berry Gordy. The team then joined Motown where they became the primary writers for the duets between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (#19 pop, #3 R&B), “Your Precious Love” (#5 pop, #2 R&B), “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (#8 pop, #1 R&B), and “You’re All I Need to Get By” (#7 pop, #1 R&B).

At Motown, they also worked with Gladys Knight & The Pips, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Marvelettes, and The Supremes. The pair also wrote and produced hits for Diana Ross, including three 1970 hits – “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” (#20 pop, #7 R&B), a cover of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (#1 pop, #1 R&B), and “Remember Me” (#16 pop, #10 R&B).

They left Motown in 1973 but still found success, most notably with Chaka Khan’s 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman” (#21 pop, #1 R&B). Whitney Houston covered the song in 1993 with even greater success (#3 pop, #1 R&B). During their post-Motown years, Ashford & Simpson also found their greatest success as performers with 1984’s “Solid” (#12 pop, #1 R&B).

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller: Top 50 Songs

l to r: Mike Stoller, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Leiber; image from

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller

Top 50 Songs

Songwriter and record producer Jerry Leiber was born Jerome Leiber on 4/25/1933 in Baltimore, MD. He died on 8/22/2011. Mike Stoller, his songwriting partner and also a producer, was born 3/13/1933 in Belle Harbor, New York City, NY. They were one of the songwriting teams to work in the legendary Brill Building, known for housing some of pop music history’s most famous songwriters and publishers in the 1950s and ‘60s. Three of their songs – “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” and “Stand by Me” – are featured in the DMDB book The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era, 1954-1999.

For a complete list of their DMDB honors, check out the separate DMDB Music Maker Encyclopedia pages for Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Click here to see other acts’ best-of lists.


Top 50 Songs

Dave’s Music Database lists are determined by song’s appearances on best-of lists as well as chart success, sales, radio airplay, streaming, and awards. Many of these songs have been recorded multiple times. Only the highest-ranked version in Dave’s Music Database is included in this list. The recording artist is noted in parentheses. Songs which hit #1 on these charts are noted: United States Billboard Hot 100 pop chart (US), Cashbox (CB), Hit Records (HR), Radio & Records (RR), Billboard adult contemporary (AC), Billboard R&B chart (RB), Billboard country chart (CW), UK pop chart (UK), Canadian pop chart (CN).

DMDB Top 1%:

1. Elvis Presley “Hound Dog” (1956) #1 US, CB, RB
2. Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) #1 US, CB, RB, CW, UK, CN
3. Ben E. King “Stand by Me” (1961) #1 RB, UK, CN
4. Wilbert Harrison “Kansas City” (1959) #1 US, CB, HR, RB, CN

DMDB Top 5%:

5. The Drifters “On Broadway” (1963)
6. The Drifters “There Goes My Baby” (1959) #1 CB, RB
7. The Coasters “Yakety Yak” (1958) #1 US, CB, HR, RB
8. Elvis Presley “Don’t” (1957) #1 US, CB, CN
9. Sean Kingston “Beautiful Girls” (2007) * #1 US, UK, CN, AU
10. The Coasters “Searchin’” (1957) #1 RB

11. Ben E. King “Spanish Harlem” (written by Leiber with Phil Spector, 1960)
12. The Coasters “Charlie Brown” (1959) #1 CN
13. Warren G with Nate Dogg “Regulate” (1994) **
14. The Coasters “Young Blood” (1957) #1 RB
15. The Clovers “Love Potion No. 9” (1959)
16. The Coasters “Poison Ivy” (1959) #1 RB

DMDB Top 10%:

17. The Coasters “Along Came Jones” (1959)
18. Elvis Presley “She’s Not You” (1962) #1 UK
19. Peggy Lee “Is That All There Is?” (1969) #1 AC
20. The Coasters (as the Robins) “Smokey Joe’s Café” (1955)
21. Michael McDonald “I Keep Forgettin’” (1982) #1 RR

DMDB Top 20%:

22. The Drifters “Dance with Me” (1959)
23. Elvis Presley “Loving You” (1957)
24. Elvis Presley “Treat Me Nice” (1957)
25. Ruth Brown “Lucky Lips” (1957)
26. Elvis Presley “Bossa Nova Baby” (1963)
27. Elvis Presley “Love Me” (1956)
28. Johnny Cash with June Carter Cash “Jackson” (Leiber – credited to his wife Gaby Rogers – with Billy Edd Wheeler, 1967)
29. The Shangri-Las “Past, Present and Future” (by 1966)
30. The Monkees “D.W. Washburn” (1968)

Beyond the DMDB Top 20%:

31. The Coasters “Run Red Run” (1959)
32. The Coasters “One Kiss Led to Another” (1956)
33. The Coasters “What About Us” (1959)
34. Elvis Presley “Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello” (1962)
35. Maria Muldaur “I’m a Woman” (1974)
36. Cheech & Chong “Framed” (1976)
37. Ruth Brown “Jack O’ Diamonds” (1959)
38. The Coasters “Little Egypt (Ying-Yang)” (1961)
39. The Drifters “Fools Fall in Love” (1957)
40. LaVern Baker “Saved” (1961)

41. Elvis Presley “King Creole” (1958)
42. LaVern Baker with Jimmy Ricks “You’re the Boss” (1961)
43. Elvis Presley “You’re So Square, Baby I Don’t Care” (1957)
44. Jay & the Americans “Only in America” (1963)
45. Ben E. King “I Who Have Nothing” (1963)
46. The Coasters “The Idol with the Golden Head” (1957)
47. The Coasters “Down in Mexico” (1956)
48. The Coasters “Shoppin’ for Clothes” (1960)
49. Brook Benton “Do Your Own Thing” (1968)
50. The Boys in the Band “How ‘Bout a Little Hand for the Boys in the Band” (1970)

* contains sample of “Stand by Me”
** contains sample of “I Keep Forgettin’”

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First posted 8/23/2011; updated 8/8/2023.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Billy Murray, the biggest selling sensation of the pioneer era, dies: August 17, 1954

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He was born in Philadelphia, Pennysylvania on May 25, 1877 and raised in Denver, Colorado. His death on August 17, 1954, marked a last hurrah for the pre-1920s pioneer era of music. He has been called the most sensational record seller of that time. At a time before radio ruled the waves and recording technology remained primitive, Billy Murray’s success gave the fledgling recording industry the credibility to develop into a popular form of entertainment. “In an era dominated by the operatically-influenced singing style, he helped to popularize a more natural approach. He was an incredibly versatile artist” JL whose “records serve as excellent representatives of the music and events of American culture.” DN The recording careers of other 20th century musical giants such as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles pale in comparison.

He charted more than 200 hits and 30 number ones are songs as a solo artist and as lead with the Haydn Quartet, the American Quartet, the Columbia Comedy Trio, and the Heidelberg Quintet. He also recorded numerous duets with Ada Jones. Among those songs are a number of classics which make the Dave’s Music Database list of the top 1000 songs of the 20th century. These include “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” (1904), “In My Merry Oldsmobile” (1905), “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” (with the Haydn Quartet, 1908), “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (with the Haydn Quartet, 1910), “Casey Jones” (with the American Quartet, 1910), “Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine” (with the American Quartet & Ada Jones, 1911), “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” (with the American Quartet, 1911), and “K-K-K-Katy (The Stammering Song)” (1918).

He recorded many of the definitive versions of songs from famed songwriter George M. Cohan. Among them are five which make the Dave’s Music Database list of the top 1000 songs of the 20th century. Those are “Yankee Doodle Boy” (1905), “Give My Regards to Broadway” (1905), “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (1906), “Harrigan” (1907), and “Over There” (with the American Quartet, 1917). The first two are also in the Grammy Hall of Fame while “Flag” is also in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

Murray’s highest-ranked song according to the DMDB

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Friday, August 5, 2011

Pink Floyd Releases Piper at the Gates of Dawn: August 5, 1967

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The original Pink Floyd: left to right – Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Syd Barrett, and Richard Wright

Note: This post revised on January 6, 2012, in honor of the birthday of Syd Barrett (January 6, 1946).

Pink Floyd’s debut album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, tops the Dave’s Music Database list of the best psychedelic rock albums of all time. Critics are generally in agreement. The album has become known as “one of the seminal psychedelic rock albums.” WK Rolling Stone called it “the golden achievement of Syd Barrett,” WK the band’s leader at the time. Q magazine described it as “indispensible” and All Music Guide’s Steve Huey “ranks it as one of the best psychedelic albums of all time.” SH

Click photo for more about the album.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn successfully captures both sides of psychedelic experimentation – the pleasures of expanding one’s mind and perception, and an underlying threat of mental disorder and even lunacy.” SH “This duality makes Piper all the more compelling in light of Barrett’s subsequent breakdown.” SH Before “psychedelic drugs got the best of him, and he abandoned the band to bassist Roger Waters and new guitarist David Gilmour,” BA Barrett piloted “the band through unprecedented sonic excursions.” BA “The lyrical imagery of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is…full of colorful, childlike, distinctly British whimsy, albeit filtered through the perceptive lens of LSD.” SH His “catchy, melodic acid pop songs are balanced with longer, more experimental pieces showcasing the group’s instrumental freak-outs, often using themes of space travel as metaphors for hallucinogenic experiences” SH such as in Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive.

Pink Floyd would soldier on without Barrett, creating some of the premiere rock albums of the 1970s with gems like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. However, it was the band’s first time out when they made this psychedelic masterpiece.


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