Polar Prize Pickin’ Berry

Chuck Berry, along with opera director Peter Sellars announced today as winners of the Polar Music Prize.   Why?

In its citation for Mr. Berry the award committee wrote that “‘Nuff said.   Now, do you suppose the esteemed Mr. Berry will he hiring a Swedish bar band to back him up when he comes to Stockholm to accept his prize from King Carl Gustaf himself?

I do love the eclectic nature of this Swedish prize.  As the Times puts it,

Last year’s winners were Kaija Saariaho and Yossou N’Dour; in 2006, they were Valery Gergiev and Led Zeppelin; and in 2004 they were B.B. King and Gyorgy Ligeti. (In 2003, Keith Jarrett – who works in both  classical  music and jazz, became the first and so far only musician to win the prize on his own.)

Now, back to Chuck Berry:  The album pictured above is from his second LP, released in 1958, and one of my prized vinyl collections.   Sure, it’s got the hits “Sweet Little Sixteen,”  “Rock & Roll Music,” and “Reelin’ and a Rockin'”….but have you ever heard this classic before: “Rockin’ At the Philharmonic?”  I tend to agree with the All Music Guide characterization:   “Rocking at the Philharmonic” is a rippling guitar/piano workout, a compendium of the sounds that lay beneath those hit singles, and a killer showcase not only for Berry, but also for Lafayette Leake at the ivories, and also a decent showcase for Willie Dixon‘s bass playing.”

The Science of “Happy”

What makes the mega-hit “Happy” by Pharrell Williams so darned….happy?

Been wondering that question myself, so it was nice to see a story in the Guardian that puts the question to a number of prominent music-industry types….as well as a wedding DJ named “Peepshow Paddy:”

I think part of its big impact has been that it sounds so inviting, as nowadays everyone from indie boys to Beyonce are trying to make music that sounds weird and alien. But Happy is stripped back with a good groove and a cool-sounding 60s Motown feel, so its success is down to the fact that it is pop music in its most fundamental state.

With 350 comments plus, here’s a story apparently touches a nerve, too. I especially liked this one:

9 Apr 2014 11:26

as someone who was some basic experience of writing (crap) songs, it’s really easy to write something sad that sounds ‘deep’. U2, coldplay and a thousand other sub-radiohead acts have proven this. Am, C, G, Em, and F in some combo, hey presto, you’ve got a typical rock song.

writing a catchy, happy tune that isn’t bubblegum pop crap is much more challenging. whilst it borrows from genres (as everyone does), no one can say it is a direct rip-off of another specific song. therefore, it should be applauded.

nice one, Pharrell.

I think the incredible growing number of covers of the tune are another indicator…like this one by the a Capella choir the Pentatonix. Released on March 17, it’s already north of 5 million views!

This story also reminded me of the weird similarity between Williams’ voice and the late, great Curtis Mayfield. I remember selling a ton of copies of this Curtis classic when I was working in the late, great Melody Record Shop in DC…


Meanwhile, it seems that Pharrell is trading in the Smokey the Bear look for something with a little more of an…ummm…Mozart effect?

Pharrell Williams Mozart


It’s the first day of Spring on the Calendar, and time to celebrate with some shades of happiness.  First up, the brilliant opening credits to Portlandia, the wacky ode to The City of Roses from the off-center minds of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, set to “Feel it all around” by the singer-songwriter Washed Out.  Beautiful mix of music and imagery that gets me every time.  Hey Mr. Mayor! Can we make this the new official City Song?   (And if you haven’t seen Portlandia…what are you waiting for?)

How about some long-delayed happiness captured on camera, as Stanford University scientist Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde— one of the main authors of the “inflationary cosmology” – e.g., what happened after the Big Bang – gets his entire life’s work validated?  “Happy” seems too mild a word for the powerful, deep sensation….but it makes me want to watch it again.

And finally, the Detroit Academy of the Arts and Sciences kids getting all “Happy.” with Pharrell’s hit.  Sure, it’s gone viral…and why not?  How can you not see this and smile?

Who’s in YOUR Choir?

Intriguing post in Choralnet the other day pointing out some famous faces who’s sung in their high school and/or college choirs. If you’ve got an entry to the list (and there are doubtless hundreds!) add ’em to the comments below!

Amy Adams, actress

Marcus Allen, football player

Terry Bradshaw, football player
Beyoncé, singer
Jamie Foxx, actor
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon & CNN medical advisor
Tommie Harris, football player
Chris Hatfield, astronaut

Ashton Kutcher, actor

Sugar Ray Leonard, boxer

Joe Montana, football player
Danica Patrick, race car driver
Julie Payette, astronaut
Walter Payton, football player

Brad Pitt, actor

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, U.S. Army

Usher, singer

Wild About Harry: Belafonte @ Berklee


A celebration of Harry Belafonte’s life and music at Berklee.

Great love fest and concert last night for the ever-dignified and charismatic Harry Belafonte, the “High School drop out getting an Honorary Degree from Berklee.”  At the age of 87, Belafonte stopped singing in public a few years ago,though you could spot him in the finale at least mouthing the words to “We Are the World,” the 1980s megahit for African famine relief that Belafonte brought in to being.


Moments before awarded Harry Belafonte his honorary doctorate, Berklee President Roger Brown speaks about his remarkable career.

That’s just one of an incredible list of accomplishments recited by Berklee president Roger Brown before conferring an honorary Doctor of Music to the singer, songwriter, and activist, who noted that “Belafonte” literally translates as “fountain of beautiful things.”  The tone and feel-good vibe of the event (not to mention some incredible performances by Berklee students) is nicely summarized in today’s Boston Globe:

No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”

That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.

When it came time for Belafonte to speak, he was his usual poignant, gripping, and humorous self,  recalling the first time he went onstage to sing at a jazz club in New York.   The great jazz pianist Al Haig had agreed to let him work up a short set of standards, beginning with “Pennies from Heaven.”   But, when the moment came, Belafonte recalled,  “Up jumped Max Roach to sit behind the drums. And then Tommy Potter picked up a bass.  Charlie Parker sat down with his sax. So I looked around at my backup band.  And I haven’t looked back since.”


Parting shot from Belafonte: “After this, I’m going home and smoking a joint.”

Required Reading: How The Beatles Went Viral

Easily the longest article I’ve ever seen in Billboard, but absolutely riveting. Further proof that the Fab Four virtually invented the “modern” music industry (at least, pre-Interwebs).   And, it must be said, rather humbling for us Cranky Old Farts who speak dismissively about the noisy music of the young ‘uns….to read how Jack Paar, Edwin Newman, Chet Huntely, etc. were so dismissive of that which they did not bother to understand gives you pause.   Talk about lazy reporting.

Then there’s the Sinatra-loving Capitol Records A & R man who turned down the “Dead in the Water” Beatles no fewer than FOUR times for US release…..oh yeah, and still kept his job!   Read it and weep….

How the Beatles Went Viral: Blunders, Technology & Luck Broke the Fab Four in America

When Bad Names happen to Good Bands

Funny blog post today by Bob Boilen of All Song Considered about Bad Band Names…a perpetual source of amusement for musicheads. What got Bob going was a band called The Dodos, whowere DOA until he heard them play at South by Southwest in Austin.

Of course, poorly-named bands have been around since Bill Haley launched his Comets. And by pure coincidence, I had just happened to run across another post in the Web-o-sphere the day before called The 25 Most Ridiculous Names in Rock History -broken down into “Stealth Ridiculous” – (Porno for Pyros, the Alan Parsons Project) “Lazily Ridiculous” (Of Montreal, W.A.S.P.), “Just Plain Ridiculous” (The The, Mr. Mister, The Mr. T Experience), and finally, “The Painfully Ridiculous,” (Archers of Loaf, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Numero Uno, !!! (or Chk-Chk-Chk, in tribute to the 80s cult classic movie The Gods Must Be Crazy)

Common to both lists: bands inadvertantly named by members of the Monty Python troupe, including my personal favorite, Toad The Wet Sprocket. Both a Brit and American band took the name after a hilarious Eric Idle skit on (“Rock Notes”) on Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album.

And Death Cab for Cutie was coined by Pythoner Neil Innes, during his days with the gonzo Bonzo Dog Band. Don’t remember Neil? He’s the smart-aleck minstrel chronicling the adventures of chicken-livered “Brave Sir Robin” on Monty Python and the Holy Grail….


PS – Click here for more than you ever wanted to know about Band name origins…