Sunday, October 16, 2016

Grammy Salutes Music Legends (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences/PBS-TV, October 14, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Carole King tribute KPBS showed a live event put on by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the folks who do the Grammy Awards, a bastard combination of awards show and tribute concert to a number of recipients of NARAS Lifetime Achievement Awards. The show was called “Grammy Salutes Music Legends” and was presented under the rubric of the PBS series Great Performances; it was held at the Dolby (nèe Kodak) Theatre in Los Angeles and featured a marvelously eclectic list of honorees: singer Linda Ronstadt, producer/manager/record company owner Fred Foster (there was a nice segue from Martina McBride singing Ronstadt’s hit “Blue Bayou” to the introduction of Foster as the producer and label owner for the first record of that song by the man who co-wrote it, Roy Orbison), 1950’s R&B queen Ruth Brown (Atlantic Records had so many hits on her it was sometimes referred to as “The House That Ruth Built,” though another Atlantic artist, Ray Charles, was even more important to the label’s success), the 1960’s San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, avant-garde classical composer and musical rebel John Cage, salsa legend Célia Cruz, the pioneering rap (excuse me, “hip-hop”) group Run-DMC, Arhoolie Records founder and producer Chris Strachwitz, jazz piano legend Herbie Hancock and the 1970’s band Earth, Wind and Fire. The honorees were all presented in pretty much the same way — an M.C. gave an introduction, then there was a film montage about them, followed mostly by modern musicians coming out and playing their songs — sometimes with surviving members of the original groups (two of the “classic” Jefferson Airplane lineup appeared, as did a sort of rump edition of Earth, Wind and Fire led by the brother of the original group’s now-deceased leader, Maurice White, and Herbie Hancock joined the man who introduced him, Wayne Shorter — his colleague in the Miles Davis “Second Great Quintet” of the 1960’s — for a jazz instrumental that, despite the annoying pre-programmed electronic percussion part, was the most interesting music of the evening), mostly not.

Linda Ronstadt was present but unable to sing — she gave her last concerts in 2009 and officially retired in 2011 due to rapidly advancing Parkinson’s disease — and she was introduced by J. D. Souther, who didn’t become as big a star as his Asylum label-mates Ronstadt, The Eagles and Jackson Browne but worked in a similar soft-rock vein and wrote the song “Faithless Love,” which he performed as a tribute to Ronstadt (who’d had the hit on it). A mariachi band then came out and did one of the traditional Mexican songs Ronstadt had recorded on her Latino concept album Canciones de mi Padre (Ronstadt is part-Latino and her brother, Peter Ronstadt, was for a time police chief in their native city, Tucson, Arizona), following which McBride came out for her lovely version of “Blue Bayou.” Then the honoring of Frank Foster began with a film montage of Roy Orbison’s “Sweet Dreams” and “Pretty Woman” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” — all three of those songs were originally recorded for Foster’s label, Monument Records, and Foster apparently co-wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” with Kristofferson. Kristofferson came out to perform “Bobby McGee” and showed just what the years have done to his voice; he had help from the alt-country singer Shelby Lynne, who stayed on after Kris left the stage for a version of “Pretty Woman” that did not change the words — are we returning to the days of the 1920’s when music publishers didn’t allow singers to rewrite songs to match their genders, so the definitely straight Bing Crosby sang “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears” with Paul Whiteman, Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke? (Still, the definitive version of “Bobby McGee” remains the one by Janis Joplin.) The tribute to Ruth Brown was a good deal shorter and included only a few film clips and Patty Austin, who introduced her, doing a good version of Brown’s biggest hit, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” — in her interview in Arnold Shaw’s history of rhythm-and-blues, Honkers and Shouters, Brown recalled that that song was so powerful that several times it literally stopped audiences from rioting, and all she had to do to get an audience to quiet down in hushed awe at what was coming was lift a tambourine over her head, since she’d done an introduction on tambourine on her record, and everyone knew she was about to sing “Mama.” (Patty Austin did a good job on it, but she didn’t use a tambourine, and I missed it.) Brown also said that her streak of hits at Atlantic stopped when Rudolph Toombes, the songwriter who wrote “Mama” and most of her other big sellers, died suddenly while still a young man and she couldn’t get the quality of material she’d been used to.

After that David Crosby came out to introduce the Jefferson Airplane — or what’s left of them; while four of the members of the most commercially successful edition of the band (vocalist Grace Slick, vocalist/guitarist Marty Balin, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady) are still alive, only Kaukonen and Casady were there for the tribute; Balin was apparently unavailable (though he sent a letter thanking NARAS for the award) and Slick’s place was taken by a singer named Kathy Richardson, who did “Somebody to Love” decently enough but wore a God-awful costume that looked like it had been designed by someone who had been told one of the slogans of youth culture in the 1960’s was “Flower Power” but had never seen a photo actually taken during the 1960’s. Kaukonen and Casady then took up acoustic instruments for a quite lovely instrumental duet, and they brought back their backing musicians for a song called “One More Time.” John Cage was introduced by a remote pickup from Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Cage pieces that followed were a performance piece done by Anthony Purse (at least I think that’s what his name was) that used various household objects, as well as a phonograph and a radio, to create a live sound montage; and a relatively normal song, called something like “The Wonderful Widow of Silver Springs,” by mezzo-soprano Janae Bridges with an accompanist at a piano — though not playing it normally, but rather beating its closed lid as if it were a hand drum. This was actually a surprising choice for a John Cage tribute because it seemed unusually close to what normal people think of as music — though, as Charles said, that’s probably why it was chosen instead of some of the other things they could have done. So, he said, was the song that opened the tribute to Célia Cruz, “Guantánamera,” composed by Cuban singer-songwriter Joseíto Fernandez to a poem by Cuban rebel leader José Marti, who led the opposition to Spanish rule in the 1890’s only to find that once the Spanish-American War was over Cuba had a new overlord, the United States. The first American recording was by Pete Seeger’s group The Weavers in 1963; three years later an easy-listening group called The Sandpipers had a hit on it for the fledgling A&M Records label, and Cruz grabbed hold of the song and returned it to its Cuban roots. The version performed on the Grammy special had a rewritten lyric in Spanish that appeared to be aimed at turning the song into a tribute to Cruz, and it was followed by a song probably called either “Hey Ma Ma” or “La Rumba” that appeared to have been the source for the melody of Gloria Estefan’s mega-hit “La Conga.”

Next up was the Run-DMC tribute, which as far as I’m concerned could have been left on the cutting-room floor since I simply can’t stand rap (I’m amused at the way this sort of music has two names, depending on whether or not you like it: it’s “hip-hop” if you like it and “rap” if you don’t), and though I liked the fact that the Run-DMC members were paying tribute to the people who were recording rap even before they were (they didn’t cite The Last Poets, and the only names Charles and I recognized were Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five — whose record “The Message” staked out a social-comment territory for Rap that Public Enemy and a few other early rap acts followed but which quickly got ignored in favor of paeans to conspicuous consumption, raping women, beating up Queers and killing members of rival gangs; there’s no doubt in my mind that rap, especially the “gangsta” sub-genre that became dominant in the 1990’s after the success of such thoroughly evil creeps as N.W.A., Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., is the most socially irresponsible music that has ever existed), their own presentation was a medley of bits of their old hits that just showed how relentlessly ugly rap is, especially the so-called “classic” kind in which the only musical accompaniment comes from turntables used to make the “scratching” sound and occasionally to rip off (“sample”) a musical lick from one of their artistic betters. The popularity of rap was the final straw in my transition from youth to old age — the confirmation that people considerably younger than I had come up with a popular sound I simply couldn’t stand (and still can’t). It amazes me that within 13 years of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mama” the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while rap is still stuck in the uneasy mixture of braggadocio and meanness with which it started out — though at the last Grammy Awards show they presented the opening number from the musical Hamilton with the Broadway cast, and it showed that in the right hands rap can have an artistic purpose and be beautiful and even moving. Alas, right after that the Grammy Awards brought on Kendrick Lamar, who brought us back to the wretched garbage rap usually is — and the Los Angeles Times pop-music critic, reviewing the show the next day, said Lamar should have won Album of the Year for that crap!

Fortunately, right after Run-DMC was the tribute to Chris Strachwitz, who was honored by veteran guitarist Ry Cooder and even more veteran blues pianist Henry Gray doing a beautiful song probably called “Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Love,” followed by Cooder playing with a Cajun band called the Magnolia Sisters. Then Wayne Shorter joined Herbie Hancock — who played both an old-fashioned piano and a keyboard called a “Korg Kronos Music Workstation,” alternating between the two while using the Korg to set up a mechanical rhythm that was too busy and oppressive for the lovely jazz both Shorter and Hancock were playing, Shorter on soprano saxophone and Hancock on both the piano and the keys of the Korg. Then David Foster introduced the tribute to Earth, Wind and Fire, and a rump version of the group consisting of the survivors of its glory days doing a medley of snippets of their hits. Earth, Wind and Fire were depicted as an all-star band — which hadn’t been my impression of them “in the day,” when they had been presented as the brainchild of their now-deceased founder, Maurice White, and the performance by the rump version on this show did nothing to shake my conviction that the group should have been allowed to die with Maurice White instead of being resurrected. Earth, Wind and Fire were one of those bands I wasn’t all that fond of but didn’t actively dislike; they did at least two songs that struck a chord with me, “Shining Star” (with which they began their medley on the show) and “Serpentine Fire,” but I didn’t rush out and buy their records either. Overall, Grammy Salutes Music Legends was a lumbering extravaganza, though at least it acknowledged the existence of avant-garde classical music and jazz, two genres that have been purged from the Grammy Awards show with the thoroughness of a Soviet secret police official ordering people to the gulag, and at least some of the people to whom it paid tribute were the sorts of genre-benders today’s “narrowcast” music world has little use for — Linda Ronstadt doing everything from country to rock to alternative to standards to operetta to Mexican music to opera; Hancock doing straight-ahead jazz, funk, soul, recordings with African griots, a tribute album to Joni Mitchell and a return to his classical roots (sort of) playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; Strachwitz recording just about every sort of American folk music he thought was underexposed (which was virtually all of it); and John Cage exploding the definition of music itself.