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The Story of Rock

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(Pictured: Prince and friends burn down the theater at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004.)

On our recent vacation, we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. A few random observations follow.

—Like the best rock and roll shows, the Hall will overload your senses. Music and video blast in nearly every exhibit area, and when areas are close together, the collision of sounds is cacophonous. I actually found it a little hard to concentrate sometimes.

—Concentration is needed because the Hall is a text-heavy experience. Objects displayed in museums require context, but curators and exhibit designers usually try to keep the text providing that context as succinct as possible. My sense is that the Hall does not concern itself overmuch with that goal. Exhibits are introduced with lots of text on walls; exhibit labels offer a significant amount of detail about the artifacts on display. Some of the artifacts themselves are text-heavy: letters, contracts, lyrics, etc.

—The first gallery you visit honors early influences: those artists who predate the rock era but who helped to shape it. It includes Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, and others, including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who goes in this year. But it also includes a couple of perplexing honorees, chief among them Nat King Cole, who made no secret of his dislike for rock ‘n’ roll, and who would wonder why he was there.

—Elvis Presley gets the biggest gallery. The Beatles share one with the Rolling Stones. On the day we visited, however, a gallery devoted to the career of John Mellencamp dwarfed them all. The Mellencamp exhibit is temporary, on display only until early February.

—John Mellencamp has long been #1 on my list of Hall honorees who don’t belong. He didn’t do anything groundbreaking; he isn’t an exemplar of any particular style; he has no lasting influence on artists in his wake. His records sell, but his greatest achievement is Scarecrow, recorded over three decades ago, and it’s been over 20 years since his last single of any consequence. But if the giant building on the lakeshore in Cleveland was the Hall of Sold a Lot of Records, or the Hall of Sticking to Your Job for a Long Time, you’d put Mellencamp (and lots of other inductees) in right away.

—We made it a point to visit the Alan Freed Studio, where jocks on the Sirius/XM Classic Vinyl and Deep Tracks channels do regular shifts. There’s a separate exhibit hall devoted to Freed and his early years in Cleveland. He shares the gallery with Sam Phillips and Les Paul as innovators, and with an exhibit on the history of musical technology. Altogether, it’s one of the most interesting parts of the museum.

—Critics of the Hall are often critics of Rolling Stone founder and Hall impresario Jann Wenner, suggesting that the honorees’ list reflects Wenner’s taste as much as it reflects the inductees’ place in history. Wennerphobes will be neither surprised nor pleased to learn that right now, two entire floors of the museum are devoted to an exhibit honoring the 50th anniversary of Rolling StoneRolling Stone‘s significance from the 60s to the 90s can’t be overstated; its significance since the 90s probably can be. But there’s no way the Hall was going to ignore the magazine’s 50th, so it’s fine.

—The best part of the museum is the last film Jonathan Demme directed before his death in 2017: the short Power of Rock, which is shown with audio at concert level in a theater dedicated for the purpose. It features performances from various Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, all-star jam sessions that in some cases have become legendary. The single longest segment in the film is from Prince’s induction in 2004, when he was joined by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Dhani Harrison for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and on which Prince shows himself the equal of the greatest dudes who ever strapped on a guitar, Hendrix, Clapton, anybody. At one point, Petty is seen whispering to Prince, “You ready to wrap it up?”, to which Prince responds, “No,” and continues to wail.

If you read this blog, you should visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s not really necessary for me to say that; chances are that if you read this blog, you’ve either already been there or it’s on your bucket list. And on the day you cross it off, you’ll be glad you did.


After the Fire Has Gone

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(Pictured: Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn at the American Music Awards in 1975.)

Unlike many radio stations, we take requests here. A reader asked about Conway Twitty: “One of the most successful country artists of all time. Now virtually forgotten. No legacy. How come?” What follows is my typical half-assed guess.

Harold Jenkins had an offer to play baseball from the Philadelphia Phillies, but he was drafted for service in Korea first. When he got home, he got a record deal from Sam Phillips, although nothing he recorded for Sun was released at the time. He became a rockabilly singer in 1956, changed his name to Conway Twitty (combining the names of two towns in Arkansas and Texas) and eventually hit the Hot 100 14 times between 1957 and 1962, including “It’s Only Make Believe,” which hit #1 in 1958 thanks in part to A) being a really good song and B) sounding remarkably like Elvis. Twitty was popular enough over the next couple of years to appear in three drive-in quickie films in 1960, including an appearance as himself in Sex Kittens Go to College starring Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.

In 1965, Twitty began working with Nashville producer Owen Bradley, and after a handful of chart-scrapers, started hitting the country Top 10 in 1968. Over the next 25 years, until his death in 1993 at age 59, he charted an astounding 84 singles on his own and as a duet partner with Loretta Lynn. Only eight of them—eight!—missed the country Top 10, and two of those were separately listed B-sides of Top-10 hits. Of those 84 charted singles, 40 hit #1 (only George Strait has more) and 12 more peaked at #2.

Successful? Ya think?

A few of Twitty’s biggest country hits crossed to the pop chart, including: “Hello Darlin’,” “Fifteen Years Ago,” “Linda on My Mind,” and “Don’t Cry Joni.” In 1973, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” became Conway’s biggest pop hit since 1960, reaching #22 on the Hot 100, although it’s pretty skeevy and hard to listen to now. His duet with Loretta, “After the Fire Has Gone,” also made the Hot 100, and you might recognize the duets “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “As Soon As I Hang Up the Phone,” or “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” (Even though the latter was a B-side, it got a great deal of airplay in 1978.) For a stretch in the 1980s, Twitty scored #1 country hits with pop covers: “Rest Your Love on Me” (a Bee Gees song), the Pointer Sisters’ “Slow Hand” (also kinda skeevy), “The Rose,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “Three Times a Lady.”

With such success—a solid four or five hits a year, every year, for over two decades—how come Conway Twitty isn’t an icon on the order of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, or Merle Haggard? Here’s my guess: outlaws will always be cooler than law-abiding citizens. Cash and Jones were famous for livin’ hard, and in Hank’s case, dying young; Haggard was famous for having done time. Outside of his music, Twitty was probably best known for Twitty City, a Nashville entertainment complex that was also his home from 1982 until his death. Some of his songs were pretty cheesy, and by the end of his career, his distinctive delivery, with the famous crack in his voice, sometimes seemed like a parody of itself. His inclusion as a running joke in the TV series Family Guy doesn’t help his dignity any either. Neither does that name, to be honest.

His lack of legacy is also a function of time and style. Today’s young country stars invoke Hank, Cash, Jones, and Haggard as little more than catch-phrases. The artists they emulate and recognize as icons are people like Keith Urban, who had his first American hit in 1999, and Jason Aldean, who came on the scene in 2005, and not a guy who’s been dead for nearly a quarter of a century. Today’s country music has far more in common with the stadium rock of Bon Jovi and the R&B stylings of Bruno Mars than it does with polyester-clad love men like Conway Twitty.

All of the songs mentioned in this post are worthwhile listening, but if you want to hear a particular favorite of mine, check out “I Am the Dreamer (You Are the Dream),” the charting B-side of the #1 hit “Rest Your Love on Me” from 1981. It’s Conway Twitty the way he most often sounded: the signature twang in his voice and the sensual lyrics, plus an uncommonly pretty arrangement.

A Programming Announcement

I should write something about Tom Petty here, but I can’t. The news of his death, coming on top of the news from Las Vegas, coming on top of the news from Puerto Rico, coming on top of the horrors we have to endure every day of our existence in this hideous year of 2017, has broken me.

I tried to say something, of course, because gasbags gotta gas. There’s a draft in my files from last night that is as dark and despairing a thing as I have ever written, but I have decided to keep it private. It won’t do you any more good to read it than it did me to write it, which is to say none at all.

At this time, people with nothing valuable to say need to stop talking. So I’m done for a while.

Brown Eyes Blue

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(Pictured: Crystal Gayle, sultry in the 70s.)

Forty years ago this week, Crystal Gayle hit the Billboard Top 40 with “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” a bluesy pop-country number that would eventually reach #2, one of several singles unable to dislodge “You Light Up My Life” from the #1 spot during the last quarter of 1977.

Crystal Gayle’s country career went back to “I’ve Cried (The Blue Right Out of My Eyes),” a minor hit in 1970. Her first big country hit was “Wrong Road Again” early in 1975. “Somebody Loves You” hit the country Top 10 early in 1976, and that summer, she enjoyed her first #1, the marvelous “I’ll Get Over You.” The latter became her first pop crossover, hitting #71 on the Hot 100. Those 1976 hits began a remarkable streak of success. She would hit the country charts a total of 36 times in 11 years. All but three of those songs would make the Top 10, and exactly half hit #1. Of all those, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” was the biggest, spending the whole month of September 1977 at #1 on the country chart. The album on which it appears, We Must Believe in Magic, is her biggest, and was the first album by a female country singer to be certified platinum.

Crystal Gayle’s brand of twang-free pop country was perfectly placed for 1976 and 1977, although the disco explosion caused by Saturday Night Fever made it tougher for her to cross over. After “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” she hit the Top 40 three more times. “Talking in Your Sleep” made #18 in the fall of 1978, and “Half the Way” (which is better than you remember, if you remember it) went to #15 a year later. In 1982, “You and I,” a duet with Eddie Rabbitt, became her second Top 10 hit, going to #7.

Even without crossover success, Gayle remained one of the biggest stars in country during the first half of the 80s. “You and I” was a #1 country hit, the first of five straight records to hit #1 between 1982 and 1984. A couple of them, “Baby What About You” and “The Sound of Goodbye,” crossed over to the lower reaches of the Hot 100, and the spectacular “Our Love Is on the Faultline” should have. This was about the time she made People magazine’s list of the 50 most beautiful people in the world; she was famed for her remarkable hair, which sometimes reached five feet in length.

As fashions changed in the 1990s, it got tougher for established country stars to break through on the radio. Nevertheless, Gayle kept releasing albums, her last one in 2003. A duet with Gary Morris, “Another World,” was the theme song of the NBC soap of the same name between 1987 and 1996, and she made a few acting appearances on the show. One of her more noteworthy recent gigs was writing and performing “Midnight in the Desert,” a theme song for radio host Art Bell. Earlier this year, she was officially invited to join the Grand Ole Opry, which is something that should have happened 40 years ago considering the number of minimally talented $300 haircuts who are Opry members today. The invitation came 50 years after she first performed on the Opry stage, when she was only 16 years old. She’s reportedly working on a new album, to be titled Am I That Easy to Forget, which is supposed to be out later this year.

I became a country radio DJ in 1979, and it didn’t take long for me to put Crystal Gayle high up my list of favorite artists. Her voice knocked me out (and still does), and her songs were usually a cut above what other Nashville stars were releasing. The list of great Crystal Gayle records not heretofore mentioned is long, including “Ready for the Times to Get Better,” “Why Have You Left the One You Left Me For,” and the utterly charming “Your Kisses Will.”

To sum up: she’s good and I like her and you should listen to some of these songs because maybe you’ll like them too.

Elvis Presley Film Festival

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(Pictured: Shelley Fabares and Elvis Presley on the set of Clambake, 1967.)

The children of the 1970s knew who Elvis Presley was, and we heard a handful of his songs on the radio as current hits before he died in 1977. But his movies didn’t register as strongly, at least not with me. You had to stay up pretty late if you wanted to see them on TV, but that was fine. Seeing them was not a high priority; there wasn’t anything among them I felt I absolutely had to see, not the way I wanted to see all of the classic monster movies of the 30s. Over the last month, however, I’ve had my own Elvis film festival. On the flip, read what I thought about what I saw.

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Classic Rock End Times

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(Pictured: British newspapers headline the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997.)

I have written previously about being on the air the afternoon Michael Jackson died, and about reading the bulletins on the morning of the Challenger explosion. Twenty years ago tonight, I was on the air at the classic-rock station when Princess Diana died. (It was early in the morning of August 31, 1997, in Europe, but the evening of August 30 in the States, and the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend.)

We did not do breaking news on that station, of course. Our conventionally wacky morning show had newscasts, but it was the barest of headline services. A hard news item that could break through at any other time of the day had to be very, very big.

I was doing the all-request show that night. If our studios were connected to the Internet, it was an extremely new development, and I can’t say for sure whether I got the first bulletin that way. Although the company still had a news department, I wasn’t in the habit of looking at the wires. I suppose somebody from one of the other stations in the building could have come in and told me. Maybe a listener called up and told me. By some method, I tracked down a bulletin, although I didn’t read the first one, which was about the princess and a car accident. But later in the evening, when it became clear that it was a serious accident, I decided to go on with it. An hour later, the bulletins I was seeing made it clear that Diana had died in the accident, so sometime after 11:00 I delivered the news.

There was no consultation with the program director before I did it. I made the decision entirely on my own hook, as a veteran jock smart enough to recognize that this was the kind of news story even we shouldn’t ignore. That’s not intended to make me sound like a hero. It’s more an illustration of the fact that if you smack a mule in the head with a two-by-four, you can get his attention.

That show was one of the last ones I did at that station, as we were getting ready to move from the Quad Cities to Iowa City. It may have been the next-to-last week, which would mean my final show was September 6, 1997. Somewhere, I still have a tape of that last show (and I think I saved the tape of the Diana show, too). I talked about it being my last show, and I am sure I played some songs because I wanted to hear them. My ego was/is such that I undoubtedly played every phone call I got from people saying the show wouldn’t be the same without me.

Long before that night, I had chosen the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” as my last record. The last request I played was for “End of the Line” by the Traveling Wilburys, which seemed cosmically appropriate. I gave a little speech at my last break, thanking the audience and thanking the program director for putting up with me. Then it was into the Beatles and I was done, except for a back-of-the-studio, off-mike response to the overnight guy during his first break, when he told the audience how much the station would miss me.

I didn’t think of my exit from the Quad Cities as the end of my radio career, although I had no plans to return to radio anytime soon. And I didn’t. Over the next several years, I would do a few sports broadcasts, but I wouldn’t do a music show again for nearly nine years.

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