Category Archives: Music

Stand By Me

It’s sad to say goodbye to Ben E. King, who died Thursday at the age of 76.

King, whose name at birth was really Benjamin Earl Nelson, made the song Stand By Me famous.

When I read that Stand By Me was a concept King had tucked away, almost forgotten until King was casually questioned by Leiber and Stoller at the end of a writing session about any other song ideas he might have, it’s a reminder of the lasting importance of small moments and that  “hits” often (always?) happen  for reasons that are beyond our control.

The story goes that Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler harbored a grudge against Stand By Me because hiring the orchestra turned out to be overly expensive.

Odd thought, given the enduring success of that original recording. We too often obsess over the momentary cost without considering the possible long-term payoff. Although it is weird to see King lip synching it here in a room that contains many more dancing-challenged white teenagers than orchestral string players.

The New York Times obituary included this King quote: “I still think my whole career was accidental. I didn’t pursue it. I feel like I’m cheating sometimes.”

But there’s no doubt King had true talent and a legitimate, lasting effect. Back in 2008 this tremendously impressive global rendition of Stand By Me was pieced together by the organization Playing for Change.

All of this came about because a guy with the unusual name of Lover Patterson was persistent about finding talent  in Harlem and kept returning to the luncheonette run by Ben E. King’s father, asking if there were any young guys around who could sing.

Turns out there was at least one.

Can you sing? 


Guitar Hero

Only in a society handicapped by racism and misogyny could someone like Elvis wind up being a bigger and better-remembered star than Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose birthday is today.

She was born in Cotton Plant Arkansas. They say her father could sing and her mother was a musician and preacher. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree and she was wowing them as a prodigy in Chicago by the time she was ten.

All that talent, stage time and encouragement led to something truly wonderful. Tharpe had dominating stage presence and ample skill. The voice and the phrasing catch you right away, but note the guitar solo here – she has serious chops.

Oddly, Tharpe is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though many who were inspired by her, including Johnny Cash, are.

But when I hear Sister Rosetta Tharpe sing and play the guitar and read about her precocious youth, it suddenly becomes easier to believe that certain people are put on Earth to do a particular thing, and when opportunity and talent align, it’s a sight (and sound) to behold.

What were you good at when you were very young?

The Galaxy Hillbillies

The discovery of a gigantic black hole from the dawn of time has me feeling a bit like that small town boy who thought his world was pretty huge, until he found out about New York City.

We’re such small potatoes, universe-wise, the only way I can get my head around it is through the lens of the literature of my youth – TV show theme songs.

So these scientists was lookin’ at a big black hole,
though goin’ to visit wasn’t anybody’s goal.
The one that they found – was as wide as it was tall …
It made everyone feel impossibly small.

A massive hole. In vast space. Texas trench.

It was further away than a lot they’d seen before
It was large as the sun plus a dozen billion more.
They said “this is bigger than an older hole should be,”
An’ they added it all up to another mystery.

Dawn of time. Ancient gas. Quasars.

What’s the biggest city you visited as a youth, and what effect did it have on you?  

The Yancey Special

Today is the birthday of the American musical innovator Jimmy Yancey, who was a self-taught piano playing sensation. He arrived on the planet in Chicago near the end of the 19th century, and didn’t become known outside Chicago until he made some recordings in 1939.

Yancey is credited with developing a distinctive rolling boogie woogie bass figure for the left hand, and recording some notably gentle but intricate pieces.  No matter which key he started in, he always finished his tunes in E flat.

It’s important to know what you like.

It was Jimmy Yancey’s style of playing I had in mind when I set out to learn to play the piano in 1985.

Like many others, I felt the influence of that classic “They all Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano …” advertisement pictured at the top of this post. John Caples, the guy who wrote that ad sure knew what kind of story appeals to the common folk. Being mocked, belittled, sold short, and then dishing the humiliation back to your critics! I love this quote about his philosophy, taken from his NY Times obituary:

“He debunked humorous advertising copy, saying that ”only half the people in this country have a sense of humor, and clever ads seldom sell anything.” He also advised copywriters to ”use words you would expect to find in a fifth-grade reader” because ”the average American is approximately 13 years old mentally.'”

In fact I think I was 13 years old when I first saw that “They All Laughed …” ad.  I was going to have the same experience – all I needed was a piano, a party, and some talent.  But in spite of my best intentions and the not-nearly-enough-hours I spent at the keyboard, I never came close to what Yancey had done. My excuses – work, parenthood, life. Prime time TV and laziness had something to do with it too, but I never mention them, and consequently I never sit at the piano at parties.

Of course Jimmy Yancey also had a life to live outside music, and yet that didn’t prevent him from being great. For twenty six seasons he was a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, working on the field at Comiskey Park through all the struggles and recording sessions and being eclipsed by other players or ignored all together even though he was a fine artist.

And yet during that same quarter century, the White Sox never had a first place finish and only managed seasons over .500 nine times. What a shame for the many thousands of fans who attended those games looking for greatness – they didn’t know the most genuine superstar on the field was the guy smoothing the dirt and trimming the grass.

What’s your best “They All Laughed When I …” moment?