The stories we could tell

The archives of rock music are full of unusual anecdotes, bizarre historical notes, strange coincidences and amusing back stories. Here at Hack’s Back Pages, I have shared some of them in longer essays about major artists, or in brief write-ups about specific songs on a themed playlist. For this post, I’ve compiled 10 fascinating tidbits from the classic rock era that I thought would pique your interest. At the end you’ll find two playlists of songs I’ve referred to in the text.

Rock on!


Steam’s B-side #1 hit

In 1969, a struggling young band known as Steam recorded a song called “It’s the Magic in You, Girl,” selected by their label as a potential hit.  They were then told, “Okay, now go ahead record something else, anything at all, to put on the B-side of the single.  It can be instrumental, it doesn’t matter.  Whatever you want.”  They started playing a light, accessible groove, jamming for 20 minutes while the singer added a bunch of “na na na”s and other off-the-cuff lyrics, and they were done.  The producer edited it down to the best three minutes, slapped it on the back of “It’s the Magic in You, Girl,” and shipped it out. As it turned out, DJs thought the A-side was lame and ignored it, but they were taken by the catchy ditty on the B-side.  Within a few weeks, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” was the #1 song in the country.


Richie Havens and band at Woodstock

Because the organizers of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair had seriously underestimated the crowd turnout for the three-day event in August 1969, access to the site was hopelessly jammed, causing substantial delays for several of the musical acts who were scheduled to perform. Because of this, Richie Havens, a Greenwich Village folk act, valiantly stepped in to the opening slot and proved to be a welcome surprise.  Havens had intended to play a 45-minute set list of folk songs and covers, including his minor anti-war hit “Handsome Johnny,” but he was told to continue playing for nearly two hours because the bands scheduled after him still hadn’t arrived. Having run out of tunes, he ended up improvising on the old spiritual “Motherless Child” that ended up becoming one of the festival’s anthems, “Freedom.”  Said Havens later, “I’d already played every song I knew and I was stalling, asking for more guitar and mic, trying to think of something else to play – and then it just came to me.  My band and I riffed on a few chords and I just sang ‘Freedom!’ over and over. Hey, the establishment was foolish enough to give us all this freedom, and we used it in every way we could.”


The Funk Brothers backing Stevie Wonder

From 1964 to 1969, Motown artists made an enormous presence on the US Top 40 airwaves. Artists like The Supremes, The Temptations, Smokey and The Miracles, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder had major chart success with multiple hit singles, and Mary Wells, Martha and The Vandellas, The Contours, Gladys Knight and The Pips, Kim Weston, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, and Brenda Holloway also took turns on the pop charts with records that are still enormously popular more than 50 years later.  The unsung heroes of all this dazzling music were the dozen top-flight session musicians who accompanied the singers on every one of their records. They were the Motown Records house band, and they referred to themselves as The Funk Brothers: Drummers Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, guitarists Robert White and Eddie Willis, keyboardists Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke, percussionist Eddie Brown and the incomparable James Jamerson on bass. Name any iconic Motown hit, and these guys played on it. Martha Reeves once refused to cut a track when key players were unavailable, declaring, “Ain’t no one recording nothing without The Funk Brothers!” You can now learn the whole story behind The Funk Brothers on the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”


Status Quo 1968 hit single

Just as there have been many dozens of artists who made it big in the US but are unknown in England, the reverse also holds true. Bands like Slade, The Jam, Blur and Manic Street Preachers have had broad chart success in the UK but made barely a dent in America. One of the more remarkable examples of this is Status Quo, who debuted in both countries in early 1968 with the psychedelic rock hit, “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” which peaked at #12 in the US and #2 in England.  American listeners never heard from them again, but in Britain, they set chart records that still stand today.  Once Status Quo switched from psychedelia to a boogie band, they have charted more than 20 Top Ten LPs in England and Europe, including four #1s between 1972 and 2019, and they have more than 60 singles, with 40 of them reaching the Top 20.  In the US, you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of people who’ve ever heard of Status Quo, although “Pictures of Matchstick Men” might still turn up on ’60s “one-hit wonder” playlists from time to time.


“The Graduate” soundtrack

In 1967, Mike Nichols was directing the rather controversial comedy film “The Graduate,” starring Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman. When the time came to select music for the soundtrack, Nichols, a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel, approached Paul Simon to write some songs for it. Simon was hesitant, but agreed, coming up with plot-appropriate new material about divorce (“Overs”) and angst about the future (“Punky’s Dilemma”). Nichols wasn’t thrilled with either one, and opted to use S&G tracks like “The Sound of Silence” and “Scarborough Fair.” Simon mentioned he had another song he was working on called “Mrs. Roosevelt,” adding, “I guess I could change it to ‘Mrs. Robinson‘…” Nichols went nuts. “You have a song called ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and you weren’t even going to play it for me?!” Simon replied, “Well, I haven’t finished it. I only have the chorus.” Since Nichols was fast approaching a deadline so the film could be released before year’s end, he had S&G record just the chorus of “Mrs. Robinson,” which was used in a couple of different scenes when Hoffman’s character is driving. And that’s why you don’t hear the whole song in the movie. Simon completed it a month or two later, the duo recorded the full tune for their “Bookends” LP, and by June 1968, it was the nation’s #1 single.


Mick Hucknall

Dynamic lead singer and front man Mick Hucknall sported a head of long, unkempt red hair, which made him the undisputed visual focal point of his group, a Manchester punk band known as The Frantic Elevators. Although they disbanded in 1984, Hucknall started anew with a fresh lineup, performing British soul music.  They chose to adopt the name Red (Hucknall’s nickname, of course), but one night, the promoter of a club where they were performing asked them their name, Hucknall responded, “Red.  Simply Red.”  Sure enough, when they went on stage an hour later, they were introduced as “Simply Red.”  They were amused by the misunderstanding and decided to keep the name, becoming enormously popular in the UK and, to a lesser extent, the US as well.


Gregg Allman

In early 1969, electric guitar virtuoso Duane Allman had finally assembled the powerhouse group he had been looking for: a rock-solid bass player, not one but two drummers, and a second lead guitarist, with whom he could trade solos and build inventive harmonies on blues classics and originals alike. But he was missing a singer, and he knew exactly who he wanted.  “There’s only one guy who can sing in this band, and that’s my baby brother,” Duane said defiantly. Gregg Allman, keyboard player/singer/songwriter, was still under the thumb of a record company in L.A., where the brothers had been pushed into recording two unsatisfying albums as The Hour Glass.  Duane had bailed on the contract in favor of session work back in Georgia, leaving Gregg to appease the label. Duane implored his brother to return, so Gregg hitchhiked home and walked into a rehearsal, where the group dove in to a Muddy Waters song they’d been working on called “Trouble No More,” and Gregg was floored.  Duane told Gregg to sing, and he confided, “I don’t know if I can cut this. I don’t know if I’m good enough.”  The older brother retorted, “You little punk, I told these people all about you, and you’re not gonna come in here and let me down.”  They counted it off and Gregg gave it all he had.  “Afterward, there was a long silence,” Duane said, “and we all knew.”



It was May of 1955, and the record business was about to undergo a sea change. In addition to the six major labels that dominated the industry, smaller independent companies were making their mark with lesser known niche artists who enjoyed some success on a regional basis with narrower audiences.  One of these was Chess Records in Chicago, which specialized in blues and R&B music with artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James. Label honcho Leonard Chess was eager to find a “crossover” act — a black musician who could take the energy of R&B and make it acceptable to white radio stations and audiences. “What I need,” he mused, “is someone who can successfully merge country music with blues music.” Enter Chuck Berry, who shared the desire to merge the fire of blues with the story-telling of country. He took an old Nashville song called “Ida Red,” gave it a bluesier beat and wrote lyrics about two cars challenging each other. Chess was overjoyed, but changed the title and chorus to “Maybellene,” and within a couple months, it reached #6 on the Top 40 charts as the first mainstream rock ‘n roll song.


“Sittin’ In”

Jim Messina had been the producer (and a musician) on Buffalo Springfield’s last album in 1968, and had then joined forces with Richie Furay to form Poco, producing that group’s first three albums as well. By 1971, he decided to sign a six-album deal with Columbia as an independent producer. The label assigned him to crooner Andy Williams (“it just wasn’t a good fit”), and then tried pairing him with Dan Fogelberg, who wanted to make an album “just like Poco,” but Messina wanted something different. He accepted an offer to groom newcomer Kenny Loggins, who had great songs and a voice but not much else. Messina set him up with a talented band of players, helped him hone his existing songs and co-wrote a few more with him, and ended up singing and playing on many of the tracks as well. By the time the LP was ready for release, Columbia thought Messina was so integral to the project that they chose to call it “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” He brought name recognition and was included in the cover photo as another card player around a poker table. The solo artist became Loggins & Messina, a duo that lasted for seven successful albums over six years.


“John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”
“All Things Must Pass”
Ringo’s “Beaucoups of Blues”

The Beatles last recorded together in the summer of ’69 for the “Abbey Road” album, but their final album release came in the spring of ’70 with “Let It Be,” even though those tracks were recorded 18 months earlier. Soon enough, solo albums from each Beatle were released. So the public at large, especially those who didn’t come of age until decades later, can be forgiven for sometimes mistaking songs from solo albums as Beatles tracks. Many people think “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a group effort, but it comes from “McCartney,” Paul’s solo debut. Tunes like “What Is Life” and “Isn’t It a Pity” certainly have a Beatlesque flavor to them, but they both appear on George Harrison’s first solo LP, “All Things Must Pass.” John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” sounds like a lost track from “The White Album” sessions. Even Ringo’s hit “It Don’t Come Easy” (co-written with Harrison) sounds like a Beatles tune. Just for fun, a couple of years ago I assembled two dozen songs from the four musicians’ 1970-1971 solo albums and labeled it “The Lost Beatles Album,” which envisions what might have resulted if they’d stayed together another year or so. I’ve included it as a separate Spotify playlist below.


I see you in the morning when you go to school

There’s a weird thing that happens to celebrities when they become famous. They become known nationally or internationally at the moment when fame arrives, and the public has a hard time imagining what these people looked like, or that they even existed, before that point.

Of course, everyone has a childhood. Somewhere, in family photo albums, there is photographic proof of it.

Last year, I stumbled across an article on line that included several photos of rock stars when they were children. I was able to identify a few without looking, but others bore little resemblance to the famous people they would later become.

A few months ago, I assembled a blog with 25 photos of rock stars when they were young, and encouraged readers to see how many they could correctly identify. It got such a positive reaction that I’ve returned to the well for another batch. Here are 20 photos of rock stars in their youth. Jot down your best guesses as to who you think they are, and then scroll down to see how well you did. There’s also a few lines about their early lives and how they ended up becoming famous.





































1 Cat Stevens

Born Steven Demetre Georgiou in 1948 to a Swedish mother and Greek father, and now known as Yusuf Islam, this talented singer-songwriter was the youngest of three children. He was raised in the Soho theater district of London, although following his parents’ divorce, he lived in Sweden with his mother for most of his primary school years. His commercial peak came in 1970-1975 with the albums “Tea For the Tillerman,” “Teaser and the Firecat,” “Catch Bull at Four,” “Foreigner” and “Buddha and the Chocolate Box.”

2 Prince

Born Prince Rogers Nelson in 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a jazz-singer mother and songwriter father, Prince (along with his younger sister) showed a keen interest in music from an early age. He played sports in high school but his passion was music and dance. He learned piano and guitar and began writing songs in his teens, playing in bands and ultimately being signed to Warner, who released his first LP when he was 20. He became one of the most iconic artists in rock music before his death in 2016 at age 57.

3 Madonna

Born Madonna Louise Ciccone in 1958 to a French-Canadian mother and Italian father, Madonna was raised in Bay City, Michigan, with her five siblings, attending Catholic schools there. She became accomplished in ballet and dance and moved to New York at 20 to pursue a career in dance, but also began singing in bands. By 1983, she released her debut LP and by 1985, she was a major star, beginning a chameleon-like career as a pop culture icon.

4 Elton John

Reginald Kenneth Dwight, born in 1947 in Middlesex, England, was reborn as Elton John in 1967, combining the names of two members of his first band, Bluesology (Elton Dean and Long John Baldry). He learned classical piano at age six and was hooked on rock and roll from his mother’s record collection. He got gigs in pubs at age 16 and teamed up with lyricist Bernie Taupin at age 20, ultimately getting a record contract at 22. He mimicked his flamboyant idol, the late Little Richard, in his stage shows.

5 Johnny Cash

Cash’s parents couldn’t agree whether ok call their son John or Ray, so they settled on J.R. Cash when he was born in 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas. His family was poor, and Cash’s humble upbringing informed his empathy for the working class which pervaded many of the songs he wrote. He learned guitar at age 12 and had a high-tenor voice which switched to low-baritone when his voice changed. By age 24, Cash was on the country charts with “I Walk the Line” and became one of the biggest stars of his generation.

6 Iggy Pop

James Newell Osterberg Jr., born in 1947 in Muskegon, Michigan, was the only child of loving parents who bought him a drum set and encouraged his interest in music. At age 18, he joined The Psychedelic Stooges, who gave him the name Iggy from having played in another band called The Iguanas. Inspired by the confrontational stage antics of Jim Morrison, Iggy became a shock-rocker and befriended David Bowie. Although he was never a commercial success, Iggy has been praised by critics and his fervent fan base.

7 Paul McCartney

James Paul McCartney, born in 1942 in Liverpool, England, was surrounded by musical influences from a young age. His father Jim played trumpet and gave his son one, but Paul traded it in for a guitar. He learned piano by ear and sang in a church choir. As a lefty, he struggled to play guitar right-handed, instead restringing his guitar to play it left-handed. He began writing songs once he met John Lennon and joined him in forming The Beatles. He is perhaps the most successful musician of the past half-century.

8 Jimmy Page

James Patrick Page, born in 1944 in London, found a Spanish guitar at age 12 and taught himself how to play by listening to records. He dropped out of school at 15, playing in various bands and hanging around recording studios and clubs, networking with artists and producers alike. At only 20, he became a sought-after session guitarist, playing on many hit records by British artists. He later joined The Yardbirds and eventually formed Led Zeppelin, becoming an international guitar hero.

9 Sting

Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, born in 1951 in Northumberland, England, was the eldest of four children. He learned Spanish guitar in high school and, after stints as a bus conductor, tax officer and a teacher, began playing in jazz combos. Because of the black and yellow sweatshirt he often wore, his mates nicknamed him Sting. At age 26, he moved to London and formed The Police with drummer Stewart Copeland and, seven years later, began a successful solo career that is still keeping him busy.

10 David Gilmour

David Jon Gilmour, born in 1946 in Cambridge, England, taught himself to play guitar using a Pete Seeger songbook. At age 11, he met Syd Barrett and Roger Waters at a private boys school, and eventually spent a summer busking with Barrett in France and Spain. Gilmour worked in numerous bands before being asked in 1968 to join Pink Floyd because his friend Barrett was deteriorating due to drug abuse. He became the band’s guitarist and lead singer throughout their 1970s heyday and into the ’80s and ’90s.

11 Carlos Santana

Carlos Humberto Santana, born in 1947 in Jalisco, Mexico, was the oldest of two sons in a family that moved to Tijuana and then San Francisco in the late 1950s. He learned violin at age five and guitar at age eight, and was influenced by blues players like B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, and Gabor Szabo’s jazz guitar stylings. He formed his own band in 1966 and was a featured act at Woodstock in 1969. There are 25 Santana albums and seven Carlos solo LPs in his lengthy discography.

12 Phil Collins

Philip David Charles Collins was born in 1951 in London, the youngest of three children who all prospered in the arts. Phil was given his first drum kit at age five and relentlessly played along to music on TV, radio and records. He dabbled in acting on stage and in films throughout his teen years but returned to music in 1968. He earned a spot as drummer for Genesis in 1970 at age 19 and, upon the departure of frontman Peter Gabriel, became their lead singer. Concurrently, Collins enjoyed a hot solo career as well.

13 George Harrison

Born in 1943 in Liverpool, England, Harrison was the youngest of four children, with a mother who encouraged his love of making music. Even before acquiring his first guitar, he was obsessed with the instrument, listening constantly to everyone from Django Reinhardt to Carl Perkins. At the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys, he met Paul McCartney, and was eventually invited to join The Beatles as lead guitarist during their formative years. He blossomed as a songwriter and as a solo artist in the 1970s.

14 Paul Simon

Paul Frederic Simon was born in 1941 in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in Queens, New York. His father was a bass player and dance bandleader. He met Art Garfunkel in middle school, and the duo sang and performed in the style of the Everly Brothers, even scoring a minor hit while still in high school. He began writing songs, and eventually he and Garfunkel became international stars in the late ’60s. Simon went on to a hugely successful solo career and is regarded as one of the best songwriters in pop music.

15 Cher

Cherilyn Sarkisian, born in 1946 in El Centro, California, to parents of Armenian and German-Cherokee ancestry. As early as fifth grade, she showed a flair for theater arts. Inspired by flamboyant actresses, she took to wearing attention-getting outfits and set her sights on being a famous singer-dancer. She met Sonny Bono and Phil Spector at age 16 and sang vocals on numerous records. Stardom came as the duo Sonny & Cher, and then as a solo artist in career that has now lasted six decades.

16 Billy Joel

William Martin Joel, born in 1949 in the Bronx, New York, and raised in Oyster Bay, Long Island, was the oldest of two kids. His father Howard was a classical pianist and successful businessman. Joel took piano lessons only reluctantly, and took to boxing for several years. He ultimately resumed music, playing at piano bars and in various bands and as a session pianist. His original songs helped him get signed by Columbia, where he became one of the most successful recording/performing artists of the 1970s and 1980s.

17 Davy Jones

David Thomas Jones was born in 1945 in Manchester, England, the oldest of four children. His short stature made him a natural as a jockey, which he tried but he liked acting more, winning the part of Artful Dodger in “Oliver!” on the London stage. He was signed to a TV acting contract in Hollywood and soon found himself cast as one of The Monkees, hugely popular as a TV comedy and as a pop group. Jones continued acting occasionally and participating in Monkees reunion tours until his death in 2012 at age 66.

18 Kurt Cobain

Kurt Donald Cobain was born in 1967 in Aberdeen, Washington, to a waitress and auto mechanic. His aunt and uncle both played guitar and performed in bands, and encouraged Cobain, who sang and learned piano at a young age, trying to write songs before he had reached age seven. His parents’ divorce when he was nine made him turn inward, writing music and playing guitar incessantly. His band, Nirvana, was the cream of the Seattle grunge rock scene, but depression cut his life short at age 27 in 1994.

19 Steven Tyler

Steven Victor Tallarico, born in 1948 in Manhattan, had a father who played classical piano and was a high school music teacher. Steven liked singing and became vocalist for several bands, adopting the name Steven Tally, then Tyler later on. In 1969, one of his early songwriting attempts was “Dream On,” which became a signature hit of his band Aerosmith five years later. Tyler and Aerosmith endured peaks and valleys and have sold upwards of 70 million albums.

20 Robert Plant

Robert Anthony Plant, born in 1948 in Staffordshire, England, to a working-class family. From a young age, Plant idolized Elvis Presley and wanted nothing more than to be a rock and roll singer. He had a deep passion for blues music, learning to sing along to records by Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon and Skip James. He joined Band of Joy, and was discovered by Jimmy Page, who was looking for a singer for Led Zeppelin. With that band, and in a solo career since 1982, he is regarded as one of the best vocalists in rock history.