The Year the Music Died

A presidential election offering a choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump isn’t the only thing that’s gone wrong this year. This annus horribilis has also taken a severe toll on the world’s dwindling supply of outstanding musicians.
The past week has added Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell to the long list of important music figures who have passed on to that great jam session in the sky in 2016. Cohen, who died last Monday at the age of 82, was a brilliantly brooding songwriter whose limited vocal range and homely voice somehow added an extra layer of earthy angst and spiritual yearning to his work. Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 74, came out of Oklahoma’s rich musical tradition and became a legendary studio guitarist and pianist in Los Angeles during the ’60s, working with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sam Cooke to The Monkees and helping to create Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” had a nice run of rock ‘n’ roll stardom as a headliner in the ’70s with a an idiosyncratic style that mixed country and jazz and soul and the sort of hard rock you’d expect from such a long-haired and bearded fellow, then happily settled into a career as the guy all the big names wanted on their recording sessions, and never did lose his Okie accent.
Some big name stars are among the year’s fatalities, including the artist known as Prince, whether he liked it or not, who was about as big as you can get back in the ’80s and ’90s with a flamboyant funk-based style, and retained a fervent fan base up to his death at age 57 last April. The similarly flamboyant David Bowie, whose theatrical style and gender-bending personas have proved all too influential, died in January at the age of 69. As a founding member of The Eagles, Glenn Frey sold about a gazillion or so records with a smooth country-rock sound before his death in January at age 67. Merle Haggard, who can simply be described as the greatest country singer there ever was and one of all-time greats of American music in general, died on his 79th birthday last April.
Other names on the death list that might be familiar to even casual music fans include John Berry, whose Beastie Boys combined hip-hop and heavy metal to become stars, and who died at age 52 in May. Maurice White, a founder of the hugely popular pop-funk group Earth, Wind and Fire, died at age 74 in February. Paul Kantner was a founder of Jefferson Airplane, the definitive San Francisco psychedelic rock band, but he also managed to reach 74 before his death in January. Bobby Vee, a more clean cut fellow who had some of the best of the teen idol hits in that brief interregnum between the greasy rockabilly of the ’50s and the long-haired psychedelia of the late ‘6l0s, died at age 73 in October. Frank Sinatra Jr., an underrated singer who could never escape his more famous father’s shadow, was 72 when he died in March.
The true music aficionados will also be missing some lesser-known but equally talented figures. Scotty Moore, the pioneering rockabilly musician who played the extremely cool guitar riffs you hear on the early Elvis Presley records, died at age 84 in June. The world’s greatest jazz harmonica player, Toots Theilemans, who would have been the best even if there had been others, was 94 when he died in August. The head-banging sorts of music lovers will fondly recall Lemmy Kilmister, bassist and frontman for the very hardcore heavy metal band Motorhead. If you’ve ever watched “West Side Story” and “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady” and marveled at how well Natalie Wood and Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn could sing, that’s because Marnie Nixon, who died in July at age 86, did all the singing for them and countless other musically-challenged actresses during the golden era of movie musicals. Last February also saw the passing of Dan Hicks, whose hippie hokum-revival band The Hot Licks was one of the overlooked delights of the ’70s.
We apologize if you’re a big fan of one of the many other notable musicians who have died this year, and we fear that the next month and a half will probably add some names worth mentioning to the year’s unhappy roster. At least the recordings live on, and the way things are going we’ll need them. There’s an ad that always pops at the National Review’s internet site that offers a sampling of the latest hits, which we’ll sometimes click on out of a curiosity about what the young folks are listening to these days, and so far as we can tell the same decline you see in our politics is also affecting the nation’s music

— Bud Norman

Scotty Moore, RIP and Good Rockin’ Tonight

During our daily efforts to find something in the news to write about other Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the rest of all that dreary business we happened upon an obituary for Scotty Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, which only accentuated the decline of western civilization to our rockabilly-loving sensibilities.
Only the true rock ‘n’ roll aficionados will recognize the name, but they’ll all gladly explain to you that Moore was somehow one of those rare guitarists who made on a real mark on American culture. He grew up picking cotton and playing guitar with his musical family in rural Tennessee, then quit school after the ninth grade and lied about his age to join the Navy at age 16, then wound up in Memphis working in a tire factory and a dry cleaning shop during the day and at night trying to make a mark on the city’s world-class music scene. He was an acolyte of country virtuoso Chet Atkins, as is obvious on any listening to his playing, but he mostly liked to play jazz in a Les Paul style, and was more obviously familiar with the hard-edged blues sound of his adopted city, so of course he wound up in a very nasal and twangy and hillbilly band called Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers, which cut a couple of not-bad sides for the fledging Sun Records Company over on Union Avenue. Which wound up changing the course of American musical history in the late 20th century.
The guy who started and pretty much single-handedly ran Sun Records was a cotton-picking white boy from rural Tennessee, too, but he’d heard enough black folks singing the blues in those cotton patches that it was his greatest musical passion, and although he was also a some-time country fan and would occasionally release singles by the likes of Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers his business was mostly in such all-time great blues acts as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton and Junior Parker and Pat Hare and the rest of Memphis’ top-notch blues talent. Those guys eventually headed north in the great black migration, though, and wound up signing with the Chess Records label in Chicago that had previously paid for the rights to the master recordings done in the Sun studios, so Sun Records boss Sam C. Phillips started looking around for some white guy or another who might be able to approximate that black sound he loved so much.
Sun Records had already released a record by “Harmonica Frank,” a ruggedly fine piece of folk art primitivism by some wrinkled white rural Tennessee sharecropper that even the most Afro-Centric ears would assume to be some wrinkled old black guy, and white honky-tonkers such as Roy Hall and Smokey Woods had already been playing a black-hillbilly miscegenation style of music for so long they were already old and ugly, but Phillips was looking for something more marketable to mid-’50s America. Sun Studios also made much-needed money by pressing vanity records for a reasonable fee for anyone who dropped in, and one of those customers wanted to make a hokey record for his mother on her birthday was such a good-looking guy that the the Sun Records secretary made a note of him, and she insisted that he listen to the hunk’s recording of “My Happiness,” and thus Elvis Presley wound up making his debut recordings over on Union Avenue. With his stripped-down primitivist philosophy of music, Phillips shrewdly decided to have Presley accompanied only by the reliably on-the-beat bassist Bill Black, and that guitar-pickin’ guy from the Starlight Wranglers who provided the best of their not-bad recordings.

By all accounts the recording session started horribly, with some desultory run-throughs of such corny fare of “My Happiness,” but after so many hours and so many cigarettes and so many sips of moonshine whisky and indulgences of whatever other vices you might have encountered at Sun Studios over on Union Avenue after midnight they started messing around in their hillbilly way with a 10-year-old and not well-known but definitively-black blues song by otherwise long-forgotten Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup called “That’s Alright, Mama,” and it sounded pretty damned good. They also came up with a blackened by rhythm-and-blues version of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys’ definitively hillbilly “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which also sounded pretty damned good and wound up on the B-side of a single that was a regional hit in both the black and white record stores of the segregated south, and set in motion the Presley phenomenon. That was followed by such hot wax as “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Trying to Get to You,” and with every white and black girl in the south hot for Elvis he was soon sold for a relative song to to the major label RCA records and its multi-media reach, and suddenly the bizarre miscegenation musical style of poor white trash and ghetto blacks called “rock ‘n’ roll” was an undeniable influence on American culture.
We hate to overstate anything, and abhor our cultural tendency to do so on almost every occasion, so we’ll admit that that rock ‘n’ roll might well have happened without Elvis, and that Elvis might have well happened without Scotty Moore, but we’ll still insist that seems the way it’s turned out.
The interracial music of Elvis and Scotty and Bill, as they were billed on that initial release, exemplified a cross-cultural tradition that had already been going in America from the beginning and through the note-reading masterpieces of African-American culture and the the suddenly polyrhythmic and intuitive styles of European-American had already been going on for decades, from the jazz age through western swing and those old and ugly rhythm and blues honky-tonkers, and the western civilization classical aspirations of Duke Ellington and the rest of the best of the black talent, so there are no essential people in a true republic.
Elvis Presley was undeniably good-looking and could surely shake those hips as well as any black man, and he could sure as hell sing, too, so there’s always a chance he would have made his mark without Scotty Moore playing the lead guitar, but we doubt it. Those first Sun Records releases were credited to “Elvis, Scotty, and Bill,” and although we liked the “Elvis the Original Hillbilly Cat” signature on the later releases we always thought the original credits summed the band up best. The lead electric guitar-playing on those original Sun sessions still strikes us as extraordinary, and the bass-playing by the the formidable Bill Back is still exactly on beat, and our favorite part of the masterpiece “Tryin’ to Get to You” is still that soulful solo by the not at all good-looking cotton-picken’ white boy playing that mean guitar. Scotty and Bill stayed will Elvis through the early RCA hits, and wound up in some of those embarrassing movies Elvis did, but they both eventually dropped out of he shadows of his good-looking spotlight.
Bill Black’s always on-beat “Bill Black Combo” had some minor rock ‘n’ roll hits, and Scotty Moore had some minor success doing studio work, but he mostly lived off his family’s various business, and both were memorably in on that epic Elvis “comeback special” on network television, but they were mostly confined to anonymity until Moore’s death. The Washington Post and The New York Times and all the polite media have taken notice of Moore’s passing, even if it’s left to such rockabilly-loving and impolite media as ourselves to truly fret about it, or the cultural decline that his little-noticed passing heralds. These days the ideas of fusing hillbilly and black music is derided as a politically incorrect “cultural appropriation,” and even ┬áthe most anti-politically correct types probably have no idea who Scotty Moore was, and we’re left with only the heartening licks of a cotton-pickin’Tennesse farm boy’s prototypical rock ‘n’ roll.

— Bud Norman