Sunday, May 12, 2013

Annie Lennox

For your consideration, a blonde British female vocalist with a soulful singing style who is a musical innovator, composer and social activist. Only two women come to my mind when I hear that description. One is the legendary Dusty Springfield. The other  can only be the remarkable Annie Lennox.
The British part is, I must admit, not wholly accurate in that Ms. Lennox was born in  Aberdeen, Scotland on Christmas Day, 1954. It was in the U.K. that she began her musical training and professional life. In 1971 at the age of 17 she won a place at The Royal Academy Of Music In London, where she studied flute and classical music history. In 1976 Lennox spent a short time as the flautist for a local band called The Devil's Playground. She then got her first hint of fame when she began to collaborate with guitarist David Stewart in a moderately successful band called The Tourists between the years of 1977 and 1980. She was the lead vocalist for that band which was best known for, quite appropriately, a nicely rendered cover of Dusty Springfield's classic hit, "I Only Want To Be With You".

Lennox's profile was raised quite a bit higher with her second collaboration with Stewart as the 80s-era synth-pop duo The Eurythmics. Early on in the duo's career, a defining element of Lennox's stage persona was her androgyny, wearing men's suits and close-cropped hair. Another more enduring aspect was the emergence of her smoky, soulful alto voice. Their first album, 1981's In The Garden sold modestly. It was Their second LP, Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) that launched them into superstardom, going on to selling over 75 million albums with over 20 international hit singles, such as the aforementioned album's title track followed by others such as "Love Is A Stranger", "Here Comes The Rain Again", "Would I Lie To You" and
"Missionary Man". They ended up being one of the definitive acts in the 80s new wave movement.

Though The Eurythmics never officialy disbanded, Lennox made a clear break with Stewart in 1990, beginning a long and successful career as a solo artist. Lennox and Stewart did pair up again in the late 90s to record the album Peace with all new material. A subsequent concert tour was completed with profits going to Greenpeace and Amnesty International.
In 1990 Lennox released her debut solo album Diva, which entered the U.K. charts at #1 and sold close to six million copies worldwide with nearly half of those in the United States. It contained three top 10 singles, "Why", "Little Bird" and "Walking On Broken Glass"

A truly gifted performer, Annie Lennox brings to the table a big, arresting stage presence and a uniquely soulful approach to her own material and that of others. In 1992 she performed with David Bowie at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in London's Wembley Stadium. Her bravura performance of "Under Pressure" with Bowie and the surviving members of Queen convinced me that she would have been a great choice to succeed the late great Mercury in that band. The idea of her taking on songs like "Bohemian Rapshody", "Somebody To Love" or even "Tie Your Mother Down"...well, one can dream...

Lennox followed Diva with two more solo albums, Medusa and Bare, both again received critical acclaim and sales in the millions. Medusa also debuted at #1 and contained the Grammy Award-winning single, "No More I Love Yous". Her fourth solo outing, 2007's much-anticipated Songs Of Mass Destruction featured a track called "SING" where she is joined by 23 of the industry's biggest female superstars who were invited to appear on the record to help bring attention to the HIV-AIDS pandemic, particularly in South Africa where women and children are most affected. Approaching it's fourth anniversary, the SING campaign continues to raise money to help stop the spread of the disease.

Annie Lennox's work with the SING campaign is only a part of her humanitarian work. Having achieved the status of worldwide superstar, it indeed seems that half the time she spends onstage is dedicated in some way to a worthy cause. In addition to her HIV-AIDS activism, she has been a supporter of Amnesty International and Greenpeace for many years. She led a rally against the Gaza War in London January 3, 2009. She is an ambassador for Oxfam, The British Red Cross and Nelson Mandela's 46664 campaign as well as numerous other organizations. Suffice it to say, the lady has become known for putting her time, influence and yes, her money where her mouth is.

As you can imagine, such wide-ranging philantropy does not go unnoticed or unacknowledged. Annie Lennox was awarded an Office of The Order Of The British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for her charitable works on June 28, 2011. Other recognition includes The Red Cross Humanitarian Award in 2008, The Nobel Lauterates' Woman Of Peace Awards in 2009, The Johnny Walker Charity Award in 2010, and too many more to list.
Music career-wise, she's received 8 Brit Awards (the most of any female artist), 4 Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, an American Music Award, a Golden Globe and a Billboard Century Award. All told, she is one of, if not the most decorated musical artists ever. Not to mention, the girl can sing.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Nick Lowe

Nicholas Drain "Nick" Lowe, a pivotal figure in new wave, punk rock and U.K. pub rock was born March 24, 1949 in Walton-On-Thames, Surrey, England. He is a singer-songwriter who plays guitar, bass guitar, keyboards and harmonica. Beginning his musical career in 1967, he joined a band called Kippington Lodge with his friend from school, Brinsley Schwarz. The band recorded a handful of singles on the Parlaphone label before renaming the band Brinsley Schwarz in 1969. It was while in this band that Lowe wrote some of his best-known songs, including "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love And Understanding" which was a hit by Elvis Costello in 1979 and "Cruel To Be Kind", a solo hit for Lowe himself, also in 1979.

Lowe left Brinsley Schwarz in 1975 and by 1976 he had begun playing in Rockpile with Dave Edmunds in addition to recording as a solo performer. He was also an in-house producer for Stiff Records. As a producer he was nicknamed "The Basher" due to his rough and raw production style. In addition to producing Elvis Costello's first five albums, he produced early works by The Pretenders, The Damned, Dr. Feelgood, Graham Parker and others. His first single, released in August of 1976 was "So It Goes". It was also the first single released on the Stiff Records label.

Despite the impact Lowe has had on punk rock, he was never really a punk rocker. Musically, his roots were in pub rock, a back-to-basics movement popularized in England as a three-chord good-time type of sound that found a niche in the late 70s and early 80s. Lowe's own music was a blend of hard rock and power pop, infused with hooks, melodic songcraft and a wicked sense of humour, As new wave began to fade in the late 80s, Lowe turned his attention to roots rock and eventually became a full-fledged country rocker in the 90s.

Having earned a reputation as an eccentric but excellent songwriter by 1975, Lowe wanted to leave the label he was signed to at the time United Artists Records, but the label did not want to let him go. Lowe proceeded to record a string of deliberately unmarketable singles in an effort to get United Artists to drop him. The first of these was "Bay City Rollers We Love You", a satiric homage to the teen pop sensations. It unexpectedly became a hit in Japan. Finally, after releasing "Let's Go To The Disco" credited to The Disco Brothers, United Artists dropped him from the label.

"(I Love The Sound Of) Breaking Glass" was Lowe's first top 10 hit and was featured on his first solo LP, Jesus Of Cool (changed to Pure Pop For Now People on the U.S. release) in 1978. His second album, Labor Of Lust, was supported by Rockpile and contained his only major U.S. hit, "Cruel To Be Kind" which sounds quite a bit like something you would hear from The Grass Roots and incidently, one of my favorite Lowe songs along with a song from the only album officially by the group Rockpile, Labour Of Lust, a number titled "Teacher, Teacher".

During much of the 1980s, Lowe struggled with alcoholism. It was with the help of his long-time friends Elvis Costello and Stiff Records executive Jake Rivera that he recovered and remained sober ever since. After this he decided to stop looking for crossover pop hits and concentrated on country rock and roots rock. His last U.K. hit was 1984's "Half A Boy And Half A Man", and his final hit in the U.S. was 1985's "I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock And Roll)".

Lowe described his move from regular pop music as having "escaped the tyranny of the snare drum". On his recent album releases such as At My Age, The Convincer and The Impossible Bird, he has clearly and artfully recast himself as an earnest, world-traveling balladeer, respectfully digging deep into American roots music. To this day he renders vintage country, soul and RnB with a heartfelt, graceful dignity that he wears well at this stage of his long and influential career.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Four Seasons

Their first wave of success can be traced back as far as 1956. That and the fact that to date, they have sold over 100 million records (let's just pause while we try to envision one million of, envision that a hundred times...ok, enough, my head is beginning to hurt...) says that these guys are the most long-lived and successful male vocal group ever. They are The Four Seasons. Make no mistake people, they came, they saw, and they kicked ass.
The group was formed by Francis Castelluccio, or as we now know him, Frankie Valli, as The Variatones with brothers Nick and Tommy DeVito on guitars and Hank Majewski on bass guitar in 1954. Several name changes later, they became The Four Lovers in 1956. In 1958 the group started working with producer Bob Crewe doing mainly session work. In addition to this they worked the club circuit and pretty much any gigs they could find. They found themselves at a show in Baltimore supporting The Royal Teens who had a major hit at the time called "Short Shorts". The song was co-written by the Royal Teens' guitarist, the then 15-year old Bob Gaudio. A year later, Gaudio would join The Four Lovers replacing Nick DeVito.  

Around the same time bassist Majewski left to be replaced by Charles Calello, who hung around until 1960 when he left to be replaced by Nick Massi. The first turning point for the group came later that year when they failed an audition to work at a New Jersey bowling alley. To quote Bob Gaudio, "we figured we'll come out of this with something, so we took the name of the bowling alley. It was called The Four Seasons".
Under Crewe's direction the group recorded a Gaudio composition called "Sherry" and solicited different labels for its release. The song made an impression with the people at Vee-Jay Records, who signed the group and released their first album in 1962 with "Sherry " as the single. It turned out to be not only their first hit, but also their first #1 release.

The group by this time had comfortably settled into their unique style and sound. The major identifying factor of this sound was the one-of -a-kind voice of Frankie Valli. Valli posessed a tenor voice with a distinctive falsetto that was described as stratospheric by some, shrill by others. At any rate, his voice along with the group's doo-wop influenced harmonies and the well-crafted pop songs written by Crewe and Gaudio were embraced by record buyers as evidenced by the string of hits that followed "Sherry", including the two follow-up singles "Big Girls Don't Cry" and Walk Like A Man", both also going to #1.
During the period of 1962 to early 1964 the group was rivaled only by The Beach Boys in terms of record sales in the U.S. What set them apart was the fact that with their first three singles on the Vee-Jay label, they became the first rock group to have three consecutive #1 hits on the Billboard charts. Despite the Four Season's commercial success however, Vee-Jay underwent financial problems that caused royalty disputes with The Four Seasons that ended up with both parties in court in 1964. A settlement was reached in 1965, but after several big-selling albums and little money from Vee-Jay, the group left to sign with the Phillips label, distributed by Mercury Records. When Vee-Jay finally went bankrupt in 1966, the Four Seasons' Vee-Jay catalog reverted to the group and was reissued by Phillips. This made any Four Seasons record with a Vee-Jay label valuable collector's items.

Even while going through legal battles and a change of label, The Four Seasons kept making hits without missing a beat, their popularity undiminished. Nor did the onslaught of the British Invasion affect their star power. They were in fact the only rock group to have a #1 Hot 100 hit before, during and after The Beatles had their Top 100 #1 hits. In the March 21,1964 edition of the Billboard Top 100, it took no less than three Beatles songs on the charts at the same time to keep The Four Seasons' hit "Dawn (Go Away)" from the #1 spot.

The group consistently churned out many more top 20 singles all the way up until 1969 when their popularity faded due to rock fans' interests shifting to harder edged rock, deeper RnB, and socially conscious lyrics. The group struggled through leaving the Phillips label, a one-off single with Warner Brothers Records and a frustrating period with Motown Records with one tanking single after another. The group started to bill themselves as Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons, but even this did not improve their status, though Valli had begun recording as a solo artist in addition to working with the group. Finally, two things happened that broke the Four Seasons' losing with Warner Brothers...and the Disco Era.

"Who Loves You", a huge dance-floor hit, went to #3 on the U.S. charts and was a top 10 song in the U.K. At the same time in 1975, Valli had a #1 song with "My Eyes Adored You", a ballad that was certified double platinum. The group by this time had added two more lead singers, Don Ciccone and Gerry Polci. This eased the vocal load on Frankie Valli, who was suffering from a gradual hearing loss (this was later corrected with surgery). Valli followed up with another big hit, capitalizing on the disco craze with the dance number "Swearin' To God" peaking at #6 on the Top 100. The group itself opened 1976 with another disco-ready song, "December 1963(Oh What A Night)", which became the Four Seasons' fifth #1 release. This song had Polci singing the verses with Valli singing the bridge part and background vocals. The song was co-written by Gaudio and his future wife at the time, Judy Parker.

After 1978 and Valli's #1 single "Grease" from the soundtrack of the movie of the same name, The Four Seasons' top 40 hits were now behind them. They did however, remain a popular touring act with Valli remaining the only constant among changing personnel.
The group was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990 and The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame In 1999.
In 2005 Jersey Boys, the four-time Tony Award winning play chronicling the group's carreer opened on Broadway and is still hugely popular with productions in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Not bad for a bunch of guys from Newark.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Chi-Lites

 This smooth-as silk vocal group is responsible for some truly top shelf harmonic soul in the realm of All Things Rockin'. Originally a quintet formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1959, they were Marshall Thompson, Creadel "Red" Jones, Robert Lester, Clarence Johnson and group leader singer/songwriter extraordinaire, Eugene Record. At first calling themselves  The Hi-Lites, after releasing a handful of singles on local labels they changed their name in 1964 to Marshall And The Chi-Lites in homage to their hometown. By the end of that year The name was shortened to simply The Chi-Lites. It was during this period that Record emerged as the principal vocalist and composer for the group.
After signing with Brunswick Records in 1968, the group scored their first major hit the following year with "Give It Away" hitting #10 on the U.S. RnB charts. Their next top 10 hit was 1971's "Are You My Woman". It was the next single release that gave the group their first crossover hit going to #26 on Billboard's pop charts and to #4 on the RnB charts. The song was "(For God's Sake) Give More Power To The People".

"(For God's Sake) Give More Power To The People" was a bottom-heavy up-tempo funk romp featuring alternating lead vocals in a fashion similar to Sly And The Family Stone's "Dance To The Music". It would turn out however, that love ballads would be the type of song that would keep the group at the top of the charts subsequently. Their first trip to the top o the charts would be with one such ballad , 1971's "Have You Seen Her", a heart-tugging song written by Eugene Record and songstress Barbara Acklin. It went to #1 on the RnB charts and proved to be one of The Chi-Lites' signature songs.       

The following year brought more success to the group when the follow-up to "Have You Seen Her", a Eugene Record composition titled "Oh Girl" became not only another crossover hit but a #1 release on both the pop and RnB charts.
This period would prove to be the peak of the group's success. A combination of personnel changes that left them at different times a quartet and a trio along with financial problems undergone by Brunswick Records resulted in a lack of promotion and inconsistent recorded output. Consequently Record left the group to sign with Warner Brothers Records as a solo artist. The group left Brunswick and signed with Mercury Records but produced no hits with the label.
In 1980 the group signed to the Chi-Sound label and released their first hit in decades with "Hot On A Thing Called Love" reaching #15 RnB in 1982. The following year they left Chi-Sound and signed with Larc Records. This was the label that carried the group's final hit, the top 10 "Bottom's Up".
Of the original group's line-up, three are no longer with us. Creadel "Red" Jones passed away August 25, 1994. Eugene Record died on July 22, 2005 after a long battle with cancer. Robert Lester, also a victim of cancer, died January 21, 2010.
The Chi-lites with surviving original member Marshall Thompson are still active on the oldies package circuit. The group was inducted into The Rhythm And Blues Foundation Hall Of Fame in 2000 and into The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame in 2005.