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!

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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“Maybellene”

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.

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“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 last for seven successful albums over six years.

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“McCartney”
“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.

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When I was young and they packed me off to school

All the rock stars of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — every single one of them — started out as a toddler, a youngster, a teenager.

They may have evolved into bombastic vocalists, or hard rock guitarists, or iconic songwriters that changed the direction of rock and roll music. But at one point, they were just darling children, inquisitive kids, awkward adolescents just like the rest of us.

It’s fascinating to think about, and to see these future celebrities at a young age, still innocent and unknowing of what fate had in store for them.

I’ve done some digging in photography archives on the Internet and come up with some great photos of 25 rock and roll legends when they were just kids.

Take a gander at the photos below, make a note of who you think they are, then scroll down to see how you did. You can also read about when and where they were born, their family situations, and how they gravitated toward careers in rock music. I’ve also added a playlist of 25 deep tracks by the 25 artists featured here.

I’m curious to learn how many of these sweet young faces you recognize!

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#1: Roger Daltrey

The eventual singer for The Who was born in 1944 in East Acton, just west of London. He was the oldest of three children, and although he got excellent grades in school, he had a bad temper and would use his fists to settle arguments, which resulted in him getting expelled more than once. He played guitar but preferred singing. He’s now 77 and still performs with Pete Townshend as The Who.

#2: Grace Slick

Recognized as the first female rock singer, Slick was born in 1939 as Grace Wing in Highland Park, Ill. She and her brother and parents were moved several times between Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the family settling in Palo Alto, CA. She married filmmaker Jerry Slick in 1961 and worked as a model for I. Magnin department store. She wrote music for Slick’s films and also joined his band, The Great Society. She was recruited to join Jefferson Airplane in 1966. She’s now 82.

#3: Donald Fagen

Fagen, one half of the spectacular songwriting team behind Steely Dan, was born in 1948 in Passaic, NJ. His mother Elinor had been a swing music singer in her teens. Fagen was 10 when the family moved to the suburbs of South Brunswick, NJ, which he disliked, and he sought solace in late-night jazz radio. He later attended Bard College in New York, where he met like-minded Walter Becker and they began writing songs together. They masterminded Steely Dan’s recording career throughout the ’70s and a resurgence in the 2000s. Now 73, Fagen still performs as Steely Dan.

#4: James Brown

The eventual Godfather of Soul was born in 1933 in Barnwell, SC, to a teenage mother and a family in poverty. They moved to Augusta, GA, in 1938, where he coped with an abusive family dynamic and survived on his own much of the time. He won a talent show singing at age 11, but at 16 served time for robbery, where he met Bobby Byrd and other future band mates and began singing both gospel and R&B music. Brown died in 2006 at age 73.

#5: Freddie Mercury

The future lead singer of Queen was born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 in the British protectorate of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) to Parsi-Indian parents. He was born with four supernumerary incisors, to which he attributed his four-octave vocal range. He spent time in British boarding schools in India, where he played rock and roll and Western pop music in bands with school chums. The family moved to Middlesex, England, outside London when he was 12 and pursued a fanatical passion for heavy rock and blues music, eventually changing his name to Freddie Mercury and forming Queen in 1970. He died in 1991 at age 45.

#6: Eric Clapton

One of rock’s finest blues guitarists was born in Surrey, England, in 1945 to a 16-year-old mother who abandoned him, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents. He acquired an instant love for American blues music at age nine, and once he got a quality guitar, he spent many hours every day for years perfecting his technique. Clapton joined a number of groups but grew restless, never staying for long. The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos all came and went before his 26th birthday. He is still an active musician at age 76.

#7: Marvin Gaye

One of soul music’s smoothest vocalists of all time was born Marvin Gay Jr. in 1939 in Washington DC. He was the second oldest of four children, and his father was a Pentecostal minister who ran a strict household. He began singing in church at age four and was encouraged at age 11 to pursue a professional singing career, which put him at odds with his violent father. Hesang with doo-wop and R&B vocal groups, began recording at 20 and became hugely popular on the Motown label in the ’60s and ’70s. He was shot to death by his father in 1984 at age 44.

#8: Jim Morrison

Born in 1943 in Melbourne, FL, Morrison was one of three children who were “military brats” whose father was an admiral in the US Navy, requiring multiple moves throughout childhood. They lived in San Diego; Alexandria, VA; Albuquerque; Kingsville, TX, and Alameda, CA and attended college in Florida and at UCLA in California. He was a voracious reader with a passionate interest in philosophy, poetry and film. While in LA, he befriended the musicians who would comprise the lineup of The Doors. He died in 1971 at age 27.

#9: Elvis Presley

“The King” was born in 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. His twin brother was stillborn, leaving Presley to be raised an only child to parents who struggled to make ends meet. Presley sang and learned guitar as a grade-school kid, singing mostly gospel and country music. The family moved to Memphis when he was 13. Despite little encouragement from friends, family or teachers, Presley began performing at school and in talent shows. At 19, he recorded a few tracks at Sun Records, where he was discovered and nurtured as a pioneer of the new hybrid musical genre known as rock and roll. Presley died in 1977 at age 42.

#10: Stevie Nicks

The future star in Fleetwood Mac’s late ’70s lineup was born in 1948 in Phoenix. Nicks was taught by her uncle to sing melodies and harmonies by age four, and her mother instilled a deep love of fairy tales and fantasy literature. Her family moved often, living throughout the West and Southwest US, eventually settling in the Bay Area, where Nicks joined her first band at 19 and met musical and romantic partner Lindsay Buckingham in 1970. Nicks remains an active recording and performing artist at age 73.

#11: Jerry Garcia

The man later known as Captain Trips as leader of The Grateful Dead was born in 1942 in San Francisco to parents of Spanish and Irish-Swedish ancestry. His father died when Garcia was only four, and he and his brother were sent by his mother to live with their grandparents for five years, a period when Garcia was exposed to country music through Grand Ole Opry radio shows. He learned to play piano, guitar and banjo when the family was reunited and lived in Menlo Park, CA. He grew fond of rock and roll and R&B in 1959-60 and and soon met the musicians who would make up the Grateful Dead in the mid-to-late ’60s. Died in 1995.

#12: Diana Ross

Ross was born in 1944 in Detroit as the second oldest of seven children. The family lived in a few different neighborhoods in the Detroit area, and Ross excelled at a magnet school where she learned skills to become a fashion designer. At the same time, she pursued an interest in singing by joining The Primettes, a female offshoot of the male group The Primes, and won a talent contest in Windsor, Ontario. The Primates won an audition with Motown in 1959 and soon became the chart-topping Supremes. Ross is now 77.

#13: Neil Young

Young was born in 1945 in Toronto, Canada. His family lived in the small rural town of Omeemee, about 100 miles northeast of Toronto. At age seven he contracted polio during the last outbreak of that disease there. When his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to Winnipeg in the prairies of central Canada, where joined his first band at age 15. He later joined The Squires, who played hundreds of gigs all over Canada in the early-mid 1960s. He met Stephen Stills and later moved to Los Angeles to form Buffalo Springfield. Young is still a very active singer-songwriter at age 76.

#14: Joni Mitchell

Born Roberta Joan Anderson in 1943 in Alberta, Canada, Mitchell and her parents also lived in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Like her fellow Canadian Neil Young, she contracted polio at age nine which limited her activities to painting and other art forms. She taught herself guitar, and because the polio had weakened her left hand, she devised alternate tunings to compensate. She grew to enjoy country, jazz and rock music but first pursued folk at coffeehouse venues in Canada and then the US. Her marriage to Chuck Mitchell in 1965 was over by 1967. Mitchell no longer performs due to health issues but still makes public appearances at 78.

#15: Bruce Springsteen

The Boss was born in 1949 in Freeport, NJ, as part of a working-class family of five. Springsteen had a difficult relationship with his father, from whom he sought refuge in playing rock guitar, first inspired by seeing Elvis Presley and then The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. He became passionate about playing in rock bands and writing his own songs at age 19, heading up four different bands between 1969 and 1972 when he won a contract from Columbia Records. At 72, Springsteen is still writing, recording and performing with and without his collaborators in The E Street Band.

#16: Mick Jagger

Born in 1943 in Kent, England, Jagger was part of a middle-class family of four. He resisted following his father’s career path as a physical education teacher and gymnast, instead committing to being a singer, both in church choirs as well as pickup rock bands. He did well in school and attended the London School of Economics, and even thought about becoming a politician but chose to return to music with his old friend Keith Richards, joining forces with Brian Jones in Blues, Incorporated. Still active, 78.

#17: Jimi Hendrix

In 1942 in Seattle, Al and Lucille Hendrix had their first son, Johnny, who they renamed James Marshall Hendrix when he turned four. An unstable family life led him to retreat into music, mostly ’50s rock and roll. He learned guitar by ear, practicing relentlessly while listening to blues records. He served in the Army for less than a year, then pursued as musical career with a vengeance, playing in bands led by King Curtis and Little Richard. He moved to England in 1966 to form The Jimi Hendrix Experience, constantly seeking new techniques and sounds from his guitar. He died in 1970 at age 27.

#18: David Bowie

He was born David Jones in 1947 in Brixton, England. He showed significant early aptitude for dance, and his half-brother exposed him to jazz, philosophy, Buddhism, Beat poetry and the occult. He learned guitar, recorder, sax and piano by the time he was 14, and sang in school choirs and vocal ensembles. By the time he was 20, he changed his name to David Bowie to avoid being confused with Davy Jones of The Monkees. Always eager to learn and try new things, his career was marked my numerous stylistic changes. He died in 2016 at age 69.

#19: John Lennon

Lennon was born in 1940 in Liverpool, England. His father abandoned the family and his mother felt unable to handle the responsibility of a child, so Lennon was raised by his strict aunt, although his mother lived nearby and exposed him to rock and roll records and taught him the banjo. He drew cartoons and wrote inventive prose for his school paper, later forming a band called The Quarrymen. He met Paul McCartney at age 17 and formed The Beatles in 1959. Lennon was shot and killed in 1980 at age 40.

#20: Gregg Allman

Allman was born in 1947 in Nashville as the younger of two sons. His father was killed when Gregg was only two, forcing his mother to return to school to become a CPA, which necessitated the Allman brothers attend a military academy. Going to concerts and discovering blues from a neighbor’s record collection set both boys on a path to music, first in Florida, then California before returning to Macon, Georgia, where they formed the Allman Brothers Band in 1968. Duane Allman died at age 24 in 1971 as the band was becoming a success. Gregg Allman died in 2017 at age 69.

#21: Brian Wilson

Wilson, born in 1942 in Inglewood, CA, was the oldest of three brothers. They enjoyed singing and harmonizing with their cousin and friend, under the tutelage of their father Murry Wilson, a songwriter and aspiring business manager. Brian could learn songs by ear and had perfect pitch, and his father supported his dreams of success in the pop music business, although his volcanic temper traumatized Brian, later requiring years of psychotherapy. The Beach Boys became the country’s most popular group in the early/mid ’60s. Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis died in 1998 and 1983, respectively, while Brian is still active in the music industry at age 79.

#22: Carole King

Carol Klein was born in 1942 in Manhattan. Her mother, a teacher, played piano, and it was discovered when Carol was only four that she had perfect pitch. She had a natural talent for playing and singing songs from the radio after hearing them only once. In high school, she changed her name to Carole King and began writing songs, competing with New York contemporaries like Neil Sedaka and Paul Simon. With then-husband Gerry Goffin, King wrote dozens of hits for other artists before striking out on her own in 1970. At age 79, she still performs occasionally, sometimes with longtime friend James Taylor.

#23: Glenn Frey

In 1948 in Detroit, Frey was born into a suburban family who encouraged music education. Frey played piano in grade school before switching to guitar in order to play in at least a half-dozen different rock groups in his high school and college years. He learned how to do harmony vocals working with a regional vocal group, and met and became close friends with up-and-coming rocker Bob Seger. He moved to L.A. in 1968 at age 20, where he eventually met Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and Don Henley, and formed The Eagles. Frey died at age 67 in 2016.

#24: Janis Joplin

Joplin was born in 1943 in Port Arthur, TX, as the oldest of three children. She was bullied and regarded as an outcast by fellow students in high school, which led her to hang out with other like-minded kids, one of whom had a huge record collection of blues singers like Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith. Exposure to these artists inspired Joplin to seek a career as a blues singer. At 20, she hitchhiked with a friend to San Francisco, where she became enamored by the vibrant music scene there. Seven years later, she died of a drug overdose in 1970 at age 27.

#25: Bob Dylan

Robert Zimmerman was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, the older of two boys. He was raised most of his childhood in nearby Hibbing, where his mother’s family roots were. He formed bands while at Hibbing High School, playing Elvis and Little Richard covers. He changed his last name to Dylan, moved to New York City and switched from rock to folk music “because the songs were more serious. I liked the deeper feelings.” He began his career in 1961, becoming arguably the voice of his generation through his original music and lyrics. Dylan is still going strong at age 80.

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To accompany these “deep photos,” I’ve assembled a playlist of 25 deep tracks, one by each of the 25 artists. These aren’t songs you hear very often, but they’re favorites of mine. Enjoy!