The first time Bruce Dickinson, then a vice-president at MCA Records, saw The Tragically Hip play live was at the Toronto Music Awards in 1988. “I guess it was during the first song,” Dickinson told the National Post in 2016. “Gord [Downie, the band’s lead singer] drops the mic on the floor inadvertently. It comes unattached from the cord, and the top of the mic comes off. I remember distinctly, Bobby Baker [guitar] and Gord Sinclair [bass] just looked at each other like, ‘Oh, crap. What are we going to do?’ Downie, as you know, is a great improviser. He just picks up the mic, puts it back together and tells a whole story in the middle of the song that involves the mic. I thought that was really cool.”
When Stevie Wonder joined the Motortown Revue, the package tour of Motown artists who played theaters on the Chitlin’ Circuit, he had been with Motown’s Tamla Records label for about a year. Wonder had signed to the label in 1961, when he was 11, and had released two LPs—as “Little Stevie Wonder”—the following year. The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray, a collection of songs made famous by Ray Charles, hadn’t made a dent on the charts. Motown had also released three singles by Wonder, but only “I Call It Pretty Music but the Old People Call It the Blues” charted, and it only reached 101.
In September 1966, when James Marshall Hendrix arrived in London to record his debut album, fronting his own band, he was just two months shy of his 24th birthday. He had been playing professionally since 1962, when he and bassist Billy Cox had left the US Army, where they met, and moved to Nashville. While he was in Tennessee, Hendrix played on the Chitlin’ Circuit, sometimes referred to as the urban theater circuit. These were venues in the South, the Eastern Seaboard, and the Midwest that featured African-American performers. Hendrix backed a number of soul singers during his time on the circuit, including Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke.
In 1970, Marvin Gaye fell into a deep depression following the death of Tammi Terrell, the singer with whom he had recorded a number of duets that were among Tamla Records’ biggest sellers. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” had hit 19 on the pop charts, while “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” were all in the top 10 in 1967 and 1968.
I first heard Laura Nyro’s songs the way many of us who weren’t quite in our teens did in 1968. The 5th Dimension scored a hit in June of that year with “Stoned Soul Picnic,” a song Nyro had written for her second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, which Columbia Records had released in March. The 5th Dimension weren’t really hip, and the single stuck out on AM radio as something your parents would like. A year later, they dented the charts again with “Wedding Bell Blues,” a song from Nyro’s 1967 debut album, More Than a New Discovery.
Nominee Todd Rundgren was passed over for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. I concede that T. Rex was overdue for recognition, and that Nine Inch Nails and the Notorious B.I.G. have made contributions significant enough to warrant induction. But I can’t imagine Depeche Mode or Trent Reznor without Rundgren’s influence -- and don’t get me started on the Doobie Brothers.
As I write this, Van Morrison has just released his 41st album. It’s hard to think of another artist still working in pop music who’s been as consistent as Morrison, and now, in his mid-70s, he has, if anything, ramped up his production -- Three Chords and the Truth is his sixth album in four years. While it’s tempting to compare Morrison’s career with those of other musicians from the 1960s, at this point he’s more like the blues and jazz musicians he so admires and has, all his life, taken as models, recording well-crafted albums for as long as he can continue to do so.
When SoundStage! Network publisher Doug Schneider and I first talked about a column that would call attention to important rock recordings, I leaned toward albums I’d grown up with that are now part of the rock canon. But a few weeks ago, while listening to Wilco’s third album, Summerteeth, it occurred to me that a more current release would be worth looking at in depth. Then I looked at the release date: In March of this year, Summerteeth turned 20. Wilco themselves got together 25 years ago. So much for my being hip and cutting-edge -- but Wilco very much retains those qualities.
When the Allman Brothers Band began a three-day run at the Fillmore East on March 11, 1971, they’d already decided to record the shows for release as a live album. Their two studio albums, The Allman Brothers Band (1969) and Idlewild South (1970), had been well received by critics, but sales had been sluggish. The Allmans were best in concert, and steady touring had helped create some interest in the second LP while building the band’s following. In 1970 alone the ABB played 300 shows, developing a reputation as a fierce live act. Bill Graham, who owned the Fillmores East (in Manhattan) and West (in San Francisco), became a fan in December 1969, when the Allmans opened for Blood, Sweat & Tears at Fillmore East, and he booked them into both halls many times over the next 18 months. The Allmans played the Fillmores 11 times in 1970, and by the time they appeared at Fillmore East in March 1971 they had two years of rigorous touring under their belts.
When the Los Angeles-based rock quintet Love entered Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood in June 1967 to record their third album, circumstances did not point toward a successful outcome. The band had recorded two very good records (actually, one and a half, but more on that later), and scored a top 40 hit in July 1966 with “Seven & Seven Is.” But even with the success of that single, Love had been unable to build momentum because of singer-songwriter Arthur Lee’s reluctance to tour. In addition, Lee’s relationship with guitarist Bryan MacLean, who also wrote songs for the band, was starting to fray.