The long-awaited day has arrived: The 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ballot is upon us. And well…it’s not like socks for Christmas, but it ain’t the official Red Ryder carbine action air rifle either.
It does have a good mix of old (previously nommed Todd Rundgren, Rufus w/Chaka Khan, Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, MC5, NIN, and Judas Priest) and new names (Whitney Houston, Pat Benatar, Dave Matthews Band, Doobie Brothers, Notorious B.I.G.). There’s something for almost everyone, and some longtime snubs are represented at long last (Soundgarden, Motorhead, Thin Lizzy, T. Rex). But that crackle in the air doesn’t seem to be there — I just don’t get the feeling that anyone’s truly jazzed about it when all is said and done.
A few random thoughts:
The kiosks didn’t come into play – thank Heaven.
It’s less Brit-centric than the past couple of years, with a total of five UK acts.
There’s a definite hard rock slant at work. (Won’t stop the rawkist complaining). I know Motorhead, by their own definition, isn’t metal, but I was taken aback to see them on the same ballot as Priest. I was a little surprised to see Priest, to be honest — but damn happy about it.
The 70s aren’t dead, but we’re down to one 60s flagbearer in MC5. It’s looking even more dire for acts like Link Wray, Dick Dale, the Shangri-La’s and a host of others.
Paul Shaffer’s attempt to get Willie Nelson on the ballot didn’t come to pass this time, and you have to wonder when country will show up again.
One interesting thing as I scroll through the tweets I missed earlier today: as noted in Stereogum via FRL, “We’re looking at a Hall of Fame induction class that could potentially honor almost exclusively dead artists and bands with dead frontmen: Notorious B.I.G., Soundgarden, Whitney Houston, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, Motörhead. ” Now that puts the lie into a truism among Hall watchers: that not being on the mortal coil can be a boon for your career, but a real crimp in your Hall chances. Now, all these acts won’t get in this year, but…hmmm.
No singer-songwriter rep this year.
The Google voting interface is pathetic. No results in real time? The cynic in me is on alert. Remember the Journey incident?
And one other small thing…
Can you guess what it is?
Wait for it….
WHERE IN THE HELL ARE THE WOMEN??????
Now, I didn’t expect a real uptick for them this year; the Hall’s got a track record of ignoring popular criticism, which I imagine they think makes them look steady and unshaken by trends, but it really reflects a truly remarkable pigheadedness. Unless the protest affects the bottom line, or the makeup of the committee and voting body change, they’re not going to deign to answer. It’s that “might is right; we’ve got the football” mentality. Will the John Sykes era bring change? If so, when? Those answers will be a while in coming.
But a total of three female acts (one in conjunction with a male band) is appalling. We had five in 2018. It’s the same as last year but is a smaller percentage. And what do we get instead? The Dave Matthews Band? Go read the bio – even the Hall can’t come with anything compelling about them. Who pushed this through? Non-scientific poll: Everyone I’ve talked to has said “Why?” “WTF?” or “Eww” when I read their name. But glad to know we’re not being gratuitous or anything.
Allegedly there are discussions about inducting older performers on a separate night (as my cubicle mate said, “the senior PGA tour”). Also hearing that Kraftwerk could get in as an “early influence.” Honestly, it just makes me tired. They didn’t think the system through when they started, they’ve effed things up and now have a massive backlog, with no system for fixing it. This isn’t thinking outside the box, it’s just spit and duct tape.
An artist-by-artist rundown doesn’t seem necessary; almost everyone on the ballot has bona fides and is someone I’d either love or would appreciate to see in. At this moment, I think Notorious B.I.G. (everyone’s bingo “free space” this year), Pat Benatar (stridency notwithstanding), the Doobies, T. Rex and Todd are the frontrunners, but Soundgarden could slide in there too. I hate this “either/or” mentality with women nominees, but I think Whitney’s presence on the ballot could make Chaka a bridesmaid yet again.
So what do you think? Is the Wenner era ending with a bang or a whimper?
Usually this time is the relative calm before the storm with regard to the Rock Hall: Predictions made, we’re just eagerly waiting for the ballot announcement.
But this week, things got lively early with the announcement that Jann Wenner is stepping down from his position as chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s board of directors effective January 1, 2020. He’ll be replaced by John Sykes, a current board member and president of Entertainment Enterprises at iHeartMedia. Sykes’ long resume includes slots as label president at Chrysalis Records, Chairman and CEO at Entercom (formerly Infinity Broadcasting), and president of new network development at MTV (which he co-founded), now Viacom Media, among others.
Change is on the horizon. One of the first things Sykes said he’s planning is to recast the board to include more women and people of color. He’s also mentioned the need for the museum to grow physically, something that’s already underway with a $35 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion that will include indoor event facilities. (He didn’t take the usual care to draw the line between museum and Foundation; proof how faint it really is).
Both of these steps are immensely positive and long overdue.
But I’m wary. Sykes is essentially a marketing guy. And when marketing takes control, the tail wags the dog. It takes a view from 30,000 feet before getting into the weeds to pick the low hanging fruit and reach out to leverage partnerships to maximize the brand for the target market segment. The brand, the brand, the brand.
He’s talked a lot about the Hall needing to evolve to stay relevant, and not being about any one genre, but instead a reflection of “a spirit that connects with young people.” All of this is true. And on the face, positive. We’ll see more women, more artists of color, more genres, if for no other reason than the optics.
But between the lines, what does it mean? The Hall definitely needs to connect with young people. But how are we defining young? The Hall’s already essentially signaled that it’s done with the 60s, and now the nail is in the coffin for the chances of artists like the Clovers, the Shangri-Las, Connie Francis, Link Wray, Dick Dale, and others still overlooked. Classic rock from the 70s will likely have a gasp or two still left, because Boomers (Disclaimer: my demo) have padded wallets and a strong sense of nostalgia. They’ll want to see Boston, Foreigner, and the Doobies. Will there be a rush to gloss over much of the 80s for even newer acts? We’ll have to see.
The induction ceremony and HBO broadcast of same has driven many of these decisions for a while. But with the announcement that it’ll now be broadcast live, that’ll be written in stone. The goal will be an “optimized viewer experience.” Future Rock Legends has already touched on this, but if the show can’t be cleaned up on the back end, it’ll be cleaned up on the front, with a controlled, scripted show that manageable as possible. Time is money people; classes will be five…or less! And you’ll know all the acts. You probably saw them on MTV. The Replacements, Bad Brains, Big Star, the Meters, John Prine? And non-performers? Oh, a temporary exhibit can take care of those.
Sykes also wants to do more in L.A, so shows may return there. It does have a choice of big venues and more predictable weather at the time of year the Hall wants to do this. Sorry, Cleveland. On the plus side, this probably really does mean the end of the singles category.
It’ll be interesting to see just how the NomCom responds to all of this, and how and why its makeup may change in the near future. It seems even more likely now that it’ll be sharing its role with the kiosks at the museum. Will acts like Prine and the Meters still even make it to the ballot?
This is a gut reaction. I know a lot of people won’t like it and will think it’s too pessimistic. I truly hope I’m wrong–God knows I don’t have the inside story. If I am, no one will be happier than I am. Sykes deserves a shot. It’ll take some time to know how everything will shake out, and there are those who’ll think it’s about time things happened this way. Time will tell.
Against this backdrop, the “Who Cares About the Rock Hall?” podcast dropped its latest episode, featuring Seymour Stein, Bob Merlis, and Andy Paley. I was psyched – had the earbuds on as soon as I woke up Friday.
Boomer that I am, I was all “Right on!” when they were talking about not giving up on older artists. And then, at 33:40 in, the topic turned to inducting more women. Their immediate response was “Well, more women who really deserve it…let’s not be gratuitous about it.” Really. Well, of course we don’t want to be gratuitous about it. But you know damn well that the word is only used if you don’t believe the subject of the discussion is on an equal footing, if the consideration is some kind of charity. People complain about KISS and Bon Jovi and country and pop, but that’s the word used for women and music by artists of color. And it’s bullshit. Working with women or advocating for one or two here and there notwithstanding.
Interestingly Jann “Lame Duck” Wenner was quoted in the press this week – for the first time in forever – as saying “I don’t think that’s a real issue…musical achievements have got to be race-neutral and gender-neutral in terms of judging them.” Yes, absolutely. I personally haven’t been on board with the idea of an all-female ballot because I believe that too. But when less than 8 percent of your inductees are female and when people just accept it as SOP that multiple women or people of color (let alone multiple women of color) can’t get on the same ballot, there’s a problem. White and male is the default, and everyone else is a “special class” and including them is “gratuitous.”
The guys’ take on Pat Benatar was nonsensical and not worth going into, and Stein’s knee-jerk dismissal of Cyndi Lauper an unpleasant surprise, given that he’s worked with her, but I guess her resume doesn’t get her out of the “gratuitous” category. But their view of Tina Turner as nothing but Ike’s little sidekick was nothing short of stunning. Poor Kristen Studard did her best to push back with respect, but I think she was as shook as most of the rest of us.
I’ve been reminded that the discussion did turn to some names of women they did feel should get in, so yes, it wasn’t a blanket dismissal. But I stand by my take on the implications of automatically responding with the g-word to the proposal.
So here we are at the turning point. The past with its knowledge and its dismissal of anything unlike itself, and the future, with forward thinking as a marketing strategy. What a choice.
Well now that the NomCom is actually meeting, time to stop pondering and get going!
This year’s list is an actual prediction (guess) list, although it never gets any easier. It’s easy to get paralyzed by the possibilities, so I find it’s easier to just go on feel rather than try to analyze the proclivities of who we know to be on the Committee. Looking at the lists published so far, there are some clear trends that have been bubbling under since last year, and more than one shows up here.
Critics like to jab at the number of inductees, but when you try to make any kind of list and keep it under 20 names, you realize how constricting it is. I think most of us still operate under the idea that there are limits for women, artists of color and genres outside the boundaries of classic rock, which just shouldn’t be. I went without an R&B, singer-songwriter, or alternative entry this time around, regretfully.
A few random thoughts: cynical as it may be, I don’t think the Hall is going to make significant concessions to the calls for more women on the ballot. I think that unless it affects attendance at the Museum, they’ll stay on the present course. I had four but cut Kate Bush at the 11th hour and am down to three. I’ve been an advocate for Pat Benatar the past two years but I have to admit I think she’ll wait another year – maybe my dream of a duet with Kate Bush on at least a few bars of “Wuthering Heights” can stay alive.
That brings me to the subject of Cher. Which brings me to the topic of the kiosks. Gosh knows, I adore her. Have since I was 9 years old, which makes it…a really long time. She’s a goddess. If she’s nominated, I’ll send some votes her way. And I’d love to be there to witness her speech before the HBO standards and practices crew gets to. She’ll sell tickets, would likely show up and perform, and draw a big-name inductor. But on musical merit, so many artists deserve it more. This could be the litmus test for the role the kiosk vote will play in ballots going forward. Either way, there’ll be a discussion that deserves its own post.
Without further ado:
Todd Rundgren: He has a vociferous fan base (if you’ve seen him live, you know just how much) that buoyed him up in the fan vote last year, although it’s not clear how he did with his peers after an often-fractious career. He IS the individualist. But his recent tour underscored the breadth and depth of his body of work as well as his performing ability at age 71. His run-ins with his peers are more of an impediment than any grumpiness about the Hall, but hopefully that fan base can persuade him to play if inducted.
Nine Inch Nails: Trent Reznor hit all the right notes with his induction speech for the Cure this year, he’s an Ohioan, and the NomCom clearly wants him.
Doobie Brothers: Can the Azoff lightning strike over two consecutive years? The Doobies are still active and sound good, and they’re clear favorites of the still-powerful Boomer demo.
Duran Duran: Yes, they were inductors just last year, but the Hall’s been on a Brit-centric tear, the band has a huge and enthusiastic fan base, and the band they inducted – Roxy – opened the door for them.
The Go-Go’s: They were my last-minute cut last year, but the buzz about them hasn’t diminished.
Chaka Khan: Janet’s in now. Questlove will beat the metaphorical drum; just hard to say if they’ll try again with Rufus or go with her as a solo. Either way, it’s time.
Motley Crue: I’ve been expecting them to show up on a ballot for a few years now, and now that Bon Jovi and Def Leppard are in, they’re a logical choice. They had the hits, and their crude behavior towards then-Elektra Records head Sylvia Rhone won’t hurt them, although it should. In this instance, the kiosk vote is gravy.
Kraftwerk: One of the Hall’s most egregious snubs, and the NomCom’s been trying to rectify it. They’ve had an every-other-year pattern, but they may just try to push it through this year.
Devo: Like NIN, native Ohioans, which could bode well for them.
T. Rex: Again, the Hall’s been on a run of British artists, and many of those who’ve gone in — as well as their American counterparts — have been upfront about their debt to this band. In their short career, they left a lasting mark and are one of the Hall’s top five –maybe top three – snubs. If they’re on, they’re in.
Cyndi Lauper: Her body of work more than stands up, and Seymour Stein was the executive producer for her 2016 country album, Detour. If the committee really does opt to focus on women, he could throw his influence behind her. I’ve been pushing for Pat Benatar for the past two years, but I think she’ll be a bridesmaid this year with a good shot at next year. Just as an aside, she featured prominently in the “Stay Tuned: Rock on TV” exhibit that just wrapped at the Museum and was on the cover of the visitor guide last year for the period covering Member Appreciation Day.
Rage Against the Machine: Third time will be the charm. Maybe as an inductee/NomCom member, Morello can advocate for Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Motorhead.
Depeche Mode: Chart hits, sales, longevity, and undeniable influence. It’s time. I’m probably overstressing the Hall’s recent Anglophile streak, but if it’s still in effect, it certainly can’t hurt. They may just have five additional votes on the committee in the members of Def Leppard, fans who’ve covered “Personal Jesus” andused the song as pre-show warmup. Is it realistic to think that Kraftwerk, NIN, and Depeche could all be on the same ballot, let alone class? Think of the all-star jam. That’s still a thing, right?
Notorious B.I.G.: An FYE, as they say on “Who Cares About the Rock Hall? You have to wonder though if LL Cool J’s moment is over. And when will it be ATCQ’s turn? Or Queen Latifah, Salt n’ Pepa, and MC Lyte?We shouldn’t have to feel that only one hip hop artist will make the ballot in a year, but it still feels like it’s a truism.
J. Geils Band: Let’s just get it over with already. They’ve got friends in high places and it just seems like this could be the year. They’re NOT without merit, and they’ll kick the ceremony into another gear, but it just seems like there are so many other artists that deserve to go in ahead of them.
If we do get a couple more names:
Bad Company: They score on the longevity, sales and chart hits fronts. But in truth, it would be a nod for Paul Rodgers’ career in toto, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And again, Boomers.
Lionel Richie: I’ve had him on my long list for the past three years now, and really think he’ll show up at some point. While the Commodores scored their first Grammy without him, he has four of his own, is in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and is a Kennedy Center honoree. Not sure who’d go to bat for him on the Committee but he’d be well received at the ceremony.
There it is. On the core 15, eight returnees and
seven newbies (eight and nine counting the extras). Who might make it from this
list? Crue, Biggie, Duran2, Chaka, and the Doobies, with Cyndi and
NIN in there if we get a bumper class.
Ever heard of the female side of a family tree referred to as “the distaff?”
“The distaff and the spindle were used to spin flax or wool fibers before the invention of the spinning wheel in 1533. The flax was wound around a short staff known as the distaff, which was fastened at the woman’s waist by her girdle or tucked under her arm. The flax would be fed from the distaff through the woman’s fingers to the spindle, which twisted it into yarn or thread. When women visited each other, they often carried their distaff and spindle with them to occupy them as they chatted. Sometimes the distaff was called the “rock” from the German rocken,which described the spinning apparatus. When women gathered together to spin, it was often referred to as ‘rocking.’”
– The Free Dictionary
All of this is a long way of saying: “Women. Rocking since the 16th century.”
Carly Simon’s name doesn’t come up much in discussions of the Rock Hall. I actually predicted her a couple of years ago as a wild card, and although it’s likely a long shot, there are compelling reasons that she could be a surprise candidate, and the more I researched her, the more I became an advocate.
If the Hall genuinely does set itself the goal of including more women, her name will doubtless resonate with the Boomer contingent on the NomCom and the voting body. Intelligent, independent and yes, sexy, she was an archetype of 70s feminism, and her keen self-awareness and unapologetic outlook predated Madonna by a good 10 years plus.
The Hall likes to put in singer/songwriters, the bulk of which have been men, but Simon matches them with her mature, intelligent songs (it’s hard to believe “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” was written by someone in their mid-20s), delivered in a rich, unmistakable alto capable of delivering delicate ballads, rock and show tunes.
Her compositions go well beyond “You’re So Vain”; besides the aforementioned “That’s the Way…” there was “Anticipation,” “Coming Around Again,” “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” and “Attitude Dancing.” And of course, “Let the River Run,” for which she became the first artist to receive an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe for a single composition, an honor shared only by Springsteen. She’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Grammy Hall of Fame, with 15 nominations and two wins.
And yes, she had hits: Five platinum albums, including a multi-platinum greatest hits collection, and three gold albums, all but three making Billboard’s Top 200, 12 in the top 40 and five in the top 10. In addition, she put 24 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 with 13 Top 40 hits and 28 in the A/C Top 40.
She’s been covered by artists ranging from Fred Astaire to Mandy Moore to Foo Fighters to Radiohead to Morrissey to Anita Baker and Bobby Brown with Whitney. She’s also been sampled by Trey Songz, QOTSA and Janet Jackson for “Son of a Gun (Bet You Think this Song is About You”).
She’s been cited as an influence by Taylor Swift (with whom she’s performed), Tori Amos, Carly Ray Jepsen and Natalie Maines, and you have to think by artists like Brandi Carlile and Sara Bereilles. Given her well-known reluctance to perform, a tribute by even a few of these women would make for a retweet-worthy induction ceremony highlight.
Her career in popular music now in its sixth decade, Simon is an opera composer, a published author about to publish the second volume of her memoirs, and a member and advocate of the LGBTQ community. She’s also the only person I know of to put the word “gavotte” into a hit song.
She slid sideways into our lives in 1983 with that zingy synth glissando and what Rolling Stone called a “wild, wonderful skyrocket of a voice.” Almost 36 years later, Cyndi Lauper is a cultural icon: a singer, musician, songwriter, actor, and LGBTQ and women’s advocate.
Her debut solo album, “She’s so Unusual,” was on the Billboard Top 200 for 77 weeks (peaking at No. 4), and was in the Top 40 for 65 of them. It went six times platinum in the United States alone, and has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide. It’s the first album by a female artist to produce four straight top 5 hits.
The album garnered six Grammy nominations, winning Best Album Package with Lauper winning Best New Artist (one of the few times the Grammys got it right). It received 10 MTV Award nominations, winning in 1984 for the first Best Female Video for “Girls.” The following year, the clip for “She Bop” was nominated –you have to admit that it is pretty unusual to feature your mom in a video about female masturbation that references a gay porn magazine. It’s currently No. 487 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, No. 75 on its list for the 80s and No. 41 on its “Women Who Rock” list.
An album like that’s a tough act to follow. Her 10 subsequent studio albums haven’t always sold in huge numbers or won critical acclaim, although her second, “True Colors” produced two more Top 5 hits and a classic song in the title track. But Lauper’s never worked to a formula, always treading new ground stylistically and in the concerns addressed in her lyrics: spousal abuse, LGBTQ rights, racism, consumerism.
Her 2003 “At Last” album wedded her amazing voice to American pop standards and her version of the title track comes tantalizingly close to Etta James’ and is superior to Christina Aguilera’s more lionized one. “Memphis Blues” was the most successful blues album of 2010, hitting the top spot on Billboard’s blues album chart, where it stayed for some time, and breaking into the pop Top 30. Her most recent, 2016’s “Detour,” produced by Tony Brown and executive produced by Seymour Stein, takes in iconic songs by country legends and features duets with Vince Gill and Willie Nelson.
She’s appeared on Broadway in “The Threepenny Opera, “ and in Berlin as part of Roger Waters’ 1990 production of “The Wall.” She’s worked with artists including Hugh Masekela, Tony Bennett, Mary Chapin Carpenter and more. Artists appearing on her albums include Charlie Musselwhite, Eric Clapton, and Bootsy Collins. Along the way, numerous artists have covered her songs—“Time After Time” by more than 100 artists alone, and she was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2015. Last year, she received Billboard’s Icon Award at its Women in Music ceremony. In 2011 she was included in the Rock Hall’s “Women Who Rock” exhibit. The year before, in one of the universe’s perfect moments, she was honored with a Barbie doll in her likeness.
She’s made a mark as an actor, earning an Emmy for a recurring role on Mad About You” and a nomination for voiceover work on Henry & Me. Her score for the 2012 musical adaptation of Kinky Boots made her the first woman to win a Tony for the category on her own and also earned her an Olivier nomination. The Tony made her three-fourths of an EGOT, with a Grammy, Emmy and Tony—one of only four women with this combination.
From the beginning, Lauper has had an uncompromising vision for every aspect of her work, from the music and lyrics to the themes of her albums to representation of women in her videos. Artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Gwen Stefani owe Lauper a debt. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of inclusion in the Rock Hall.
“One of the finest fucking rock bands of their time.” –David Bowie
But they could never get to that elusive top rung of the ladder, and 40 years on from their heyday, as Bowie noted sadly, “Nobody’s ever mentioned them.” They were Fanny, the first all-female band to release an album on a major label. (Goldie and the Gingerbreads were signed to Atlantic by Ahmet Urtegun in 1965 but their release was a single).
Formed in Sacramento in the late 60s as the Svelts with June Millington and Addie Lee on guitar, June’s sister Jean on bass, Nickey Barclay on keys and Brie Berry on drums. The daughters of a Filapina mother and a U.S. navy commander father, the Millingtons came to California in the early 60s. Music became their way of fitting into an often-hostile culture in the States.
Sexism was always a fact of life; Berry left the band after her new husband demanded she quit, a turn of events that labels had long used as an excuse for not female acts before and after them. When her replacement, Alice de Buhr, and Lee formed a new band called Wild Honey, the Millingtons came along and the group moved to L.A. But “yeah, pretty good for chicks” got old, and the band was on fumes when they played an open mic night at the Troubadour that initially gave them all of a five-minute slot until their reception by the crowd changed minds. In that crowd was the secretary of producer Richard Perry (Nilsson, Streisand, Carly Simon), who was looking for a female band to produce. Upon hearing them, he convinced Warner Bros. to sign them.
There was one problem to resolve before releasing their first album: the name, as another “Wild Honey” already existed. Stories that “Fanny” was suggested by George Harrison are false; according to June Millington, it was pulled from a list of 60 options and chosen because a woman’s name and the double entendre appealed to them.
In their initial run, Fanny released four albums. The second, “Charity Ball,” yielded their first top 40 hit with the title track, and the third, “Fanny Hill,” with covers of “Hey Bulldog” and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” got a favorable review from Rolling Stone. But by the fourth album, “Mother’s Pride,” the constant sexism and pressure from the label to conform to an image got to June. She left the band, which recorded a last album without her, “Rock and Roll Survivors,” which produced their second Top 40 single in “Butter Boy,” before splitting in 1975.
All of the band members stayed in music after the breakup, and in 2002 Rhino released the retrospective “First Time in a Long Time.” Individual reissues followed, and the Millingtons and Brie Berry (now Brie Howard-Darling) record and occasionally perform as Fanny Walked the Earth. Bands like the Go-Go’s and the Runaways have acknowledged Fanny as pioneers, and while a Rock Hall nom seems unlikely, they definitely deserve some recognition.
“He was the first person we had heard of from Britain to get to the coveted No. 1 in the charts, and we studied his records avidly. We all bought guitars to be in a skiffle group. He was the man.” – Paul McCartney
“He really was at the very cornerstone of English blues and rock.” – Brian May
“I wanted to be Elvis Presley when I grew up, I knew that. But the man who really made me feel like I could actually go out and do it was a chap by the name of Lonnie Donegan.” – Roger Daltrey
“Remember, Lonnie Donegan started it for you.” – Jack White
“Rock Island Line” has long been called a “traditional” tune or folk song. But in reality, the singer who made it famous – or whom it made famous — was only two years younger. Anthony James Donegan was born April 29, 1931 in Glasgow and moved to London with his family at the age of two. He grew up listening to blues, folk, jazz and American country music, and picked up his first guitar at 14. By 18 he was playing guitar around London and was a regular at the city’s jazz clubs.
He joined his first band despite a bit of a blunder: One night while on the train, he was approached by man who said he’d heard that Donegan was a good banjo player, and asked him to audition for his band. That man was Chris Barber, who’d been making a name for himself as an aspiring jazz trombonist and was putting his first group together (Still active, Barber has had a successful career in the UK. He also arranged the first UK tours of such artists as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters, catching the imaginations of young British musicians like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones).
Donegan had never played banjo in his life, but he bought one, taught himself what he could in a hurry and tried to bluff his way through. His playing didn’t get him into the band, but he hit it off with the band and found himself in. Eventually, the Chris Barber band joined forces with Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen and developed a name for themselves as they gigged around London. In between their Dixieland sets, Donegan would stage mini-sets with two other players to play his versions of blues, country and folk standards on acoustic guitar or banjo, backed by upright bass and drums. The band took to calling these “skiffle” sets on their posters, and they caught on.
In 1949, he was drafted into the British army and spent a year in Vienna, where he discovered the broadcasts of American Forces Radio Network and its broadcasts of American music. He also got to meet met U.S. servicemen, from whom he got records. When he got back to London in 1951, he found another source for blues and jazz records at the American Embassy library.
In 1952 he formed his own band, the Tony Donegan Jazz Band, and scored a spot opening at Festival Hall for pianist Ralph Sutton and Lonnie Johnson. The announcer mixed his first name up with Johnson’s that night, and the new moniker stuck.
After Colyer quite the band and Barber reassumed leadership in 1954, they recorded an album for Decca based on songs from their live set, including the skiffle numbers. Among these five tunes was “Rock Island Line.”
The album was a bigger hit than anyone expected, selling 60,000 copies, so Decca decided to release some singles. “Line” had a 22-week UK chart run, peaking at Number 8, and surprisingly, cracked the Top 20 in the U.S, where it sold 3 million copies.
British teens loved it: it was catchy, had American appeal and was a style they could easily play themselves with just a guitar or banjo, tea-chest bass and a washboard and thimble. Skiffle became the rage.
Donegan hadn’t been paid more than a few pounds for the sessions, and didn’t get royalties, but he was rapidly becoming a star. That his next single, “Diggin’ My Potatoes,” (written by blues legend Memphis Minnie) was banned by the BBC for suggestive lyrics only added to his allure with the younger crowd. He left Baker’s band and went to EMI/Columbia Records, achieving enough success to win appearances on the Perry Como and Paul Winchell TV shoes. He played on bills with Chuck Berry as well, but his missed his family and soon headed home.
He continued to create hits: “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor?” went Top 5 in the U.S. and skiffle solidified its place as a national craze, inspiring the likes of Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, and in Liverpool, a fledgling group known as the Quarrymen.
But skiffle’s shelf life was short. By 1958 it was on the wane, although Donegan would continue to chart until 1962. But the early 60s saw the young rockers he inspired take over the charts, knocking skiffle aside, and Donegan with it. He continued to play, record and tour, but aside from a nostalgic craze in Germany in the 70s, his days as a top draw were done. He worked as a producer and songwriter, crafting a hit for Tom Jones entitled “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which was also recorded by Elvis. As head of his company, Tyler Music, he had production and publishing rights to the songs of a young musician named Justin Heyward, including one called “Nights in White Satin.”
It’s a natural rhythm in popular music, but Donegan was embittered by it, and remained so for the rest of his life. He resented the “long-haired, pot-smoking pop musicians,” saying “The Beatles’ first records were archaic rock and roll, and I was resentful at the way they stopped my cash flow.” He complained constantly about his lack of remuneration for the “Line” sessions, conveniently forgetting to mention that he’d profited tidily from arranger credits for quite a few folk songs, as well as the royalty deals he’d aggressively pursued. Even his daughter described him as a whiner. By all accounts, he wasn’t a pleasant person, despite his cheery, folksy stage image. Perhaps this contributed to his poor health: He suffered from several heart attacks beginning in the 1970s.
But his temperament didn’t detract from the affection of the many performers he’d inspired. In 1978 Rory Gallagher, Brian May, Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Elton John and Peter Banks joined him for the album “Puttin’ On the Style,” featuring new versions of his classic hits. Macca wrote the liner notes for his last album, “Muleskinner Blues,” and Mark Knopfler paid tribute to him upon his passing with the song “Donegan’s Gone.” Peter Humphries’ 2012 biography, “Lonnie Donegan and the Birth of British Rock and Roll,” featured contributions from Van Morrison, Knopfler, Macca, Bill Wyman, Brian May and Richard Thompson. Daltrey, Townshend and Page have given credit to Donegan and skiffle for their beginnings.
More recently, “Downton Abbey” actor Jim Carter made a documentary about his hero that included footage of a 16-year-old John Lennon playing Donegan tunes with the Quarrymen.
In the late 90s, a few compilation albums were released, and Donegan still toured on the nostalgia circuit. It was on one such tour that he suffered his final heart attack and died on November 3, 2002 near Cambridge, England.
Over the course of his career, Donegan notched up 31 Top 30 UK hits, 24 of them successive, including three Number 1s. He was the first British performer to have two songs in the U.S. Top 10 simultaneously. He received the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement award and was made an MBE in 2000. In his own estimation, his greatest achievement was making folk music popular again. The year of his death, he told the Newcastle Journal “In England, we were separated from our folk music tradition centuries ago and were imbued with the idea that music was for the upper classes. You had to be very clever to play music. When I came along with the old three chords, people began to think that if I could do it, so could they. It was the reintroduction of the folk music bridge which did that.”
(An interesting side note: Donegan’s son Peter is himself a musician who appeared in early 2019 on the UK version of “The Voice.” One judge turned around for him: an excited Tom Jones, who performed “I’ll Never Fall in Love” with him).
George Harrison said of him, “If there were no Lead Belly there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore, no Lead Belly, no Beatles.’” In inspiring untold numbers of British musicians who themselves remade rock and pop music history, Donegan changed the face of popular music.
At one time, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame might’ve drawn a Who’s Who of British classic rock and made for a show to remember. Who knows—maybe if Mark Knopfler took part or was even given the opportunity, he’d have fonder feelings about the Hall and the debacle of 2018 would’ve never happened. Jack White would have made for a compelling link to newer music. Now, an all-star jam like that isn’t in the Hall’s desired demographics. But all that doesn’t matter: any way you look at it, the King of Skiffle should be enshrined.
Recently, the minds behind the “Induct Dennis Wilson” and “E-Rockracy” Twitter accounts joined forces to present a new podcast called “Hall Watchers” – a fresh, well-reasoned take on the Rock Hall that goes outside the box and says what needs to be said. If you haven’t checked it out yet — do it now!
The second episode spotlighted women who should be included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (Pat Benatar, The Go-Go’s, Sade, MC Lyte, Salt ‘n Pepa, Grace Jones, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Sinead O’Connor, Carol Kaye, Mary Wells, Annie Lennox (Eurythmics), Cher, Tina Turner, and, to join Stevie Nicks in the Clyde McPhatter Club as a performer, Carole King.
It’s an excellent list that in a few places goes off the beaten path. I know I was educated – I had no idea about MC Lyte’s accomplishments. I felt so inspired after listening that I thought I’d venture to add some names of my own, a bit at a time. I’ll alway stan for the non-performer, so I’ll start with three women who made it in a male-dominated world in the DJ booth, behind the camera lens, and in the boardroom, as well as one who went from performing to producing and brought a sound to the mainstream that would come to dominate the culture. I’m under no illusions about the likelihood of nominations, but they’re all worthy starting points for a conversation about the contributions of women behind the scenes in the music industry.
Female DJ’s were a rarity in 1970 when Sam Kopper hired Maxanne Sartori, known on-air as just Maxanne, from her slot at KLOL Seattle, for the afternoon slot at Boston powerhouse WBCN. Max liked to rock, and she championed some of Boston’s local talent that went on to become icons and for some, Hall of Famers. She was an early fan of the J. Geils Band and Billy Squier, and the story of her breaking the Cars from their demo tape is near legendary. Arguably the biggest band she helped get to that next level was Aerosmith, a band she had to fight station brass to include.
Max didn’t just support bands with the power of airplay; she contributed to their material and turned her shrewd eye towards their image and presentation as well. She wrote songs (and shared a romantic involvement) with Billy Squier. When another band she liked met with label resistance for lack of a defined image, she knew just what needed to be done. Among other things, she advised them that their charismatic co-lead singer was just standing there and needed an instrument in his hands. Benjamin Orr picked up the bass, and the change went a long way towards transforming Cap ‘n Swing from a jazz-pop fusion outfit into the spare, forward-looking Cars.
After leaving BCN in the late 70s, she went into promotion for a couple of major labels before going independent. While the station, sadly, is no more, she was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame earlier this year, and you can grab a pair of headphones and listen to a snippet of one of her air checks at the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame’s “Cities and Sounds” exhibit.
You’ve seen her work. She’s shot more than 100 album covers as well as covers for Rolling Stone, Nat Geo, Newsweek and Life. Her work is in the collections of the Smithsonian, MOMA and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She’s won numerous awards for both her rock and art photography and published 13 books showcasing her work, one of which, “New Kids,” made the New York Times Best Seller List.
In 1969 she won a Clio for a radio spot she produced, and in 1971 she became a director for Joshua White’s Joshua TV, one of the first companies to do big-screen projection for large concert venues. In 1972, she directed ABC’s “In Concert,” network TV’s first rock show. She co-managed Grand Funk Railroad after directing a documentary for them. In the mid 70s she founded LGI, the first entertainment photo agency, which she sold in 1997 to Corbis.
In the 80s, she expanded into performance, recording
“Dancing for Mental Health” under the name Will Powers with artists including
Todd Rundgren, Sting and Nile Rodgers. The single “Kissing with Confidence” went
to No. 3 in the UK, and the videos she produced were later used by the U.S.
Department of Labor, the National Marriage Council in the UK, Harvard, and
schools across the U.S. as social marketing and teaching aids.
An icon in the industry, she started as a secretary for Buddha Records in 1974, and over the next six years, steadily climbed though the corporate ranks, learning the ropes at ABC and Ariola. In 1981 she was named Director of Black music promotion, and VP/GM of black music operations. In 1994, she became the first African-American woman to head a major label as chairman and CEO of the legendary Elektra Records.
The Elektra appointment, surprisingly, was where she says she first encountered “issues of racial and gender bias.” She says that many questioned her ability, expecting that she’d reshape it into an urban label.
The most public and obnoxious example came from Motley Crue, who blamed her for the failure of their seventh album, “Generation Swine” and expressed it by calling her sexist and racist expletives from the stage. Given the consensus on the quality of the band at that time, it’s clear that Rhone’s response – to drop them from the label — was the right one. Under Rhone, Elektras’s roster and staff were among the most diverse in the business.
In 2004, she was named president of Motown and in 2014,
president of Epic. She’s served on the
RRHOF Nom Com, was a keynote speaker at the MIDEM conference, has won numerous
awards, honors and citations and has been named to Entertainment Weekly’s Most
Influential People list six times.
She started her career as a singer at age 16, recording as
“Little Sylvia.” As half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, she scored a #1
R&B / #11 pop single with “Love is Strange” in 1957, featuring her keening,
seductive refrain (“Baby, my sweet baby”) that featured in Dirty Dancing 30
years later. Mickey Baker taught her to play guitar, which in turn opened the
world of songwriting.
She later married Joe Robinson, and with him, founded All
Platinum records. Joe handled the books while Sylvia recruited talent, wrote
the songs, and produced the records. Hits included the Moments’ “Love on a
Two-Way Street,” (1970, co-written by Robinson) and Shirley and Company’s
“Shame, Shame, Shame.” The mother of three also had her own hit with the sexy
“Pillow Talk,” a tune Al Green rejected for being too risqué.
In 1979, All Platinum was struggling, and Sylvia was looking for a sound to save her label when she caught a club DJ talking over a backing track. She found the Sugar Hill Gang, played them off of Chic’s “Good Times,” and on Sugar Hill Records label released the record that brought hip hop to the mainstream. “Rapper’s Delight” is on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, VH1’s 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs, NPR’s list of the 100 important American musical works of the 20th century, and is enshrined in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Of the 10 hip hop tracks in the Registry, two are on Sugar Hill. The first one is “The Message,” a track she produced for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the first hip hop track of social commentary.
Robinson passed away in 2011, and unfortunately isn’t remembered fondly by all. Multiple ugly lawsuits over unpaid royalties mar her legacy (there’s not a lot online about them, but I couldn’t find an instance in which one stuck). But as Henry “Hen Dogg” Williams, a later member of Sugar Hill Gang, said of her: “She had a great ear. She knew a hit record when she heard it. If she didn’t have that idea, who knows where hip hop would be today.”
And ClientEarth is happy today, because most of the axes went for prices far beyond the pre-sale estimates. Of the 125 instruments, 58 of them sold for $100K or more and 20 of them are among the most expensive ever sold at auction. One man shelled out almost 24% of the auction’s take: Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and a well-known Floyd fanatic.
Irsay’s prizes include the legendary Black Strat set the Guinness record for the most expensive guitar ever sold by any means, fetching $3.975 million–the estimated sale was $100,000-$150,000. This was Gilmour’s primary performance and recording guitar on every Pink Floyd album from 1970 to 1983 plus all four of his solo albums. (It’s the one you hear on “Comfortably Numb”). The Martin D35 heard on “Wish You Were Here” is one that Gilmour bought that on the street back in ’71 and made his go-to acoustic, it sold for $1.5 million.
While there has to be an element of the bittersweet for Gilmour, he’s looking ahead and not back; insisting that the sale isn’t an indicator that he’s headed for retirement. “I’m not at that moment,” he says, and indicates that Fender’s replica model might be his next axe of choice. He allows that the guitars are important, but they’re the “tools that I use“ and and the Black Strat’s presence in the auction helped to bring attention to the sale and to “…the greatest challenge that humanity will ever face….We need a civilized world that goes on for all our grandchildren and beyond in which these guitars can be played and songs can be sung.”