On idols and influences

Thinking about Johnny Cash today made me pause for a moment and reflect on where I am as a result of my Musical idols. Now, I’m not talking about bands I like, or songwriters that strike a particular chord in me, or unique and individual voices — although each of those is a part of what I’m talking about. When I say idols, I don’t mean for worship, either. Worship is too much of a separation between the ideal and the reality – worship in the sense of a specific ritual that delineated in time and space focuses the attention of the worshipper in a single-minded beam of light that absorbs the universe — although THAT is part of it, too. What I am talking about is performers (in my case, Musicians) who when I first heard them changed — irreversibly, immeasurably, irrevocably, dramatically, definitely and undeniably — who I am in relationship to what I do as a Musician. It’s different for different arts, I suppose — in some media, perhaps the effect is not so immediate, but in Music, when a guitar or harmonica or piano or whatever is just within reach at the fingertips at the split second the performer’s first thing hits my eardrums. And that makes the absorption, I guess, so much more (well, in my opinion) intense and well, poignant. To put it into another vernacular, it’s like the first time you do serious amounts of any drug (enough to alter your thought energy in a pleasant way) the first time you cross the asleep/aware threshold — but it’s BETTER, because it happens every time you hear a new thing by someone who has the potential to absolutely blow your mind.

For me, it was perhaps a very strange progression … almost like some things happened accidentally, to force me to look in a different direction — although we all know that nothing really happens by accident. So it’s a plan. Maybe not mine, but a plan nonetheless. You probably get the point by now 🙂

Anyway … here, in attempted chronological order, are the performers (and their recordings or other performances) that put me where I am Musically and gave me the map to get there.

El Gato (Duke Ellington live at Newport 1958, with Cat Anderson on lead trumpet). Not really the first thing I ever heard, or sang or played, but definitely the first thing that absolutely changed me. When I heard this, I didn’t have any records of my own, but listened to the stuff accumulated by my parents (and fortunately, some of their elder relations). There was a lot of classical, mostly piano and orchestral; some jazz, mostly samplers and that sort of thing; a lot of that “Music for Dining”, “Music for Dancing” boxed set sort of thing from Reader’s Digest. Also not to be forgotten were the three “rock and roll” samplers – well, popular Music from 1952-1954, 54-56, and 56-57 – on Decca. “Blueberry Hill”, “Rock Around the Clock”, “The Glow Worm” by the Mills Brothers – oh that song still gives me chills — and so on. Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” was on those Decca records too. Wow. We also played a lot of Music at home. Each kid had to play three instruments – piano, a stringed instrument and a horn. Plus my dad played piano and lap steel on occasion. And my cousins played, too, as well as my uncle, grandfather and grandmother. It was rural, so our Musical styles were standards and country, or country standards (and when I say country, I mean America the whole country, not just Nashville). My cousin four years older had every thing the Beatles ever made or was merchandised through them. To make a long story somewhat shorter, there was a lot of Music that didn’t come from records or the radio. But that first taste of this record was cosmic. Since it was a sampler, it also had the Gerry Mulligan sextet, Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck … ah, what an introduction.

Ring of Fire (Johnny Cash) and Gold Records Vol. 4 (Elvis Presley)And here is where it really begins. The first two albums I ever actually owned and didn’t have to put back in someone else’s record rack. There is so much to be said about these two artists that this post cannot suffice. Needless to say, I learned how to sing listening to Elvis records. But I learned how to play the guitar from Johnny Cash. And write Lyrics.

The Beatles. Of course, with my cousin’s extensive collection, every time we went to visit that was all we listened to. And learned how to play. Because of the Beatles, I understand the necessities of group performance, particularly where vocals are concerned in rock and roll. Probably the most influential early Beatles’ song (the first one I ever heard was “Run for Your Life” from Help!) was the song “Ticket to Ride”. I learned that one on at least three instruments.

Maynard Ferguson. When I was 12, my clarinet teacher and junior high school band director got together at the teacher’s college (Ohio Northern University) and took us all to see Maynard Ferguson in concert. We were playing stuff from “Chameleon” in jazz band – Gospel John, Livin’ for the City, using Maynard’s charts, and seeing him live was unbelievable. I’d seen orchestras, and choirs and symphonies at this point (the ones I was participating in, of course, and on television and record), but seeing a live band that grooved was major.

The Beach Boys. Before I hit high school, I didn’t have many albums. Elvis’ Gold Records (all of them), Johnny Cash, The Bay City Rollers, Shaun Cassidy, The Eagles Greatest Hits, some stuff I’d won writing a Halloween essay contest for WKTN (Linda Hargrove, Roy Clark and The Blues Project — special note here, it was their 1974 reunion album, complete with Al Kooper, Steve Katz — the guys that wrote “I Can’t Keep From Crying”. Man, I didn’t really understand the range of the album or where that sound exactly was, but that album was GREAT. Anyway, back to the Beach Boys … the harmony vocals always drew me in. Thanks to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, I understand harmony vocals — and it certainly helped with my background and lead singing at family outings. If you sang a good harmony, everybody was VERY happy. Brian Wilson’s range of songwriting to this day amazes me. And his voice – how haunting …

KISS Double Platinum … oh, I forgot the other album I had in junior high … more on that later 🙂

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