Roy Orbison singing for the lonely

“Here’s another clue for you all, the Walrus was Paul…”

In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and pretty much ever since, popular songwriters have reveled in the occasional practice of inserting references to other musical artists in the lyrics, delighting their listeners with sometimes cryptic, sometimes overt mentions of well-known colleagues in the rock music arena.

The Beatles never went so far as to mention other artists, but they referred back to themselves more than once.  On 1968’s “The White Album,” John Lennon used his nonsensical song from the previous year, “I Am the Walrus,” to make a tongue-in-cheek reference to Paul McCartney in the lyrics to “Glass Onion” (see quote above).

peter_paul_mary-i_dig_rock_and_roll_music_s_3When folk music started morphing into folk rock in the mid-’60s, folk artists like Peter, Paul and Mary found themselves waning somewhat in popularity.  The solution:  Paul Stookey collaborated with songwriters James Mason and Dave Dixon to write “I Dig Rock and Roll Music,” a whimsical tune that name-dropped several of the rising (and established) stars of the new genre, and the result was a comeback #9 hit for the trio:  “I dig The Mamas and The Papas at the Beat, Sunset Strip in L.A., they’ve got a good thing going when the words don’t get in the way…”  “I dig Donovan kind of in a dreamed out, tripped out way, his crystal images, hey, they tell you ’bout a brighter day…  And when The Beatles tell you they’ve got a word ‘love’ to sell you, they mean exactly what they say…”

arthur-conley-sweet-soul-music-atlantic-11Similarly, R&B singer Arthur Conley teamed up with Otis Redding in 1967 to rework the old Sam Cooke song “Yeah Man” with new lyrics that called out several of the hot soul singers of that period.  The result, “Sweet Soul Music,” was a #2 hit on the pop charts and a Top Ten hit in Europe:  “Spotlight on Lou Rawls, y’all… Spotlight on Sam & Dave, y’all… Spotlight on Wilson Pickett, now…  Spotlight on Otis Redding, now… Spotlight on James Brown, y’all, he’s the king of them all, y’all…”

220px-The_South's_Gonna_Do_It_-_Charlie_DanielsThe musical fraternity of artists from the American South have supported each other throughout their careers, perhaps never as overtly as on The Charlie Daniels Band’s 1975 anthem “The South’s Gonna Do It,” which references no less than eight groups from that region:   “Well, the train to Grinder’s Switch is runnin’ right on time, and them (Marshall) Tucker boys are cookin’ down in Caroline, people down in Florida can’t be still when ol’ Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s pickin’ down in Jacksonville, people down in Georgia come from near and far to hear Richard Betts pickin’ on that red guitar…  Elvin Bishop sittin’ on a bale of hay, he ain’t good lookin’, but he sure can play, and there’s ZZ Top, and you can’t forget that old brother (Wet) Willie‘s gettin’ soakin’ wet, and all the good people down in Tennessee are diggin’ Barefoot Jerry and C.D.B...”

THE_MAMAS_AND_THE_PAPAS_CREEQUE+ALLEY-604509The Mamas and The Papas chief songwriter John Phillips wrote the 1966 autobiographical song “Creeque Alley” that told the background story of how he, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty and Cass Elliot all used to hang out (and perform) with artists who later went on to greater fame in other bands.  Six verses of lyrics delve back to when they sang in Greenwich Village clubs and eventually worked their way to Los Angeles:  (John) Sebastian and Zal (Yanovsky) formed the (Lovin’) Spoonful, Michelle, John, and Denny gettin’ very tuneful, (Roger) McGuinn and (Barry) McGuire just a-catchin’ fire in L.A., you know where that’s at…”

Unknown-74In “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel’s #1 hit from 1989, he assembled a virtual grocery list of celebrities and events that marked the years from roughly 1950 to the late 1980s.  He didn’t comment on them, he just rattled them off, like a CNN feed line across the bottom of the TV screen.  A few of these were fellow musicians:  “Davy Crockett, Peter Pan, Elvis Presley, Disneyland…”  Buddy Holly, Ben Hur, space monkey, Mafia…”  Chubby Checker, Psycho, Belgians in the Congo…”  Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion…”

Don_McLean_-_American_Pie_(album)_CoverartAmerican Pie,” one of the biggest hits of 1971-72, famously chronicles the development of rock and roll from its mid-’50s infancy through the end of the ’60s.  Most of McLean’s lyrics use code words to identify the artists he’s singling out — “the jester” (Bob Dylan), “the king” (Elvis Presley), “the players” (The Rolling Stones) and “the marching band” (The Beatles).  Perhaps most easily identifiable was his allusion to Mick Jagger in the phrase “Jack Flash sat on a candlestick,” and the reference to The Byrds and their hit single in this line:  “Helter skelter in the summer swelter, the birds flew off to the fallout shelter, eight miles high and falling fast…”

the-righteous-brothers-rock-and-roll-heaven-paraiso-del-rock-and-roll-capitolBy the mid-’70s, rock music had already lost several of its stars to untimely deaths, so the time was ripe for a song like “Rock ‘n Roll Heaven,” which calls out the names and hits of four fallen stars.  Just before  The Righteous Brothers recorded it, songwriters Alan O’Day and Johnny Stevenson added a final verse to include two additional deaths, and the song ended up a #3 hit in the summer of 1974:  Jimi (Hendrix) gave us rainbows, and Janis (Joplin) took a piece of our hearts, and Otis (Redding) brought us all to the dock of a bay., sing a song to light my fire, remember Jim (Morrison) that way…”  “Remember bad bad Leroy Brown, hey, Jimmy (Croce) touched us with that song, time won’t change a friend we came to know, and Bobby (Darin) gave us ‘Mack the Knife,’ well, look out, he’s back in town….”

stevie_wonder-sir_duke_s_1One of Stevie Wonder’s biggest hits of the ’70s was “Sir Duke,” which came from the multi-platinum LP “Songs in the Key of Life.”  Wonder was a huge fan of Big Band music and its legends, and the track’s lyrics pay homage to Duke Ellington and four more of his peers from that period:  “But here are some of music’s pioneers that time will not allow us to forget, for there’s (Count) Basie, (Glenn) Miller, Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), and the king of all, Sir Duke, and with a voice like Ella (Fitzgerald) ringing out, there’s no way the band can lose…”

HollandCoverThe Beach Boys were on both ends of the name-dropping bandwagon.  In 1973 for their “Holland” LP, they wrote a suite called “California Saga,” in which they mentioned a stalwart hqdefault-19of the outdoor festival scene: “Have you ever been to a festival, the Big Sur congregation, where Country Joe (McDonald) will do his show, and he’d sing about liberty…”  Soon after, Neil Young referenced California’s favorite sons in his song “Long May You Run,” recorded by The Stills-Young Band in 1976:  “Maybe The Beach Boys have got you now, with those waves singing ‘Caroline,’ (oh Caroline No)…”

220px-The_Royal_Scam_album_coverSteely Dan name-checked two artists in two different songs in their catalog.  First, in the track “Everything You Did” from the 1976 LP “The Royal Scam,” the lyrics outline an argument between a warring husband and wife.  One of them offers R-2600245-1374933046-1601.jpega suggestion to keep others from eavesdropping on their conversation:  “Turn up The Eagles, the neighbors are listening…”  Then on “Gaucho” in 1980, the big hit single “Hey Nineteen” offers lyrics that illustrate the challenges of dating someone considerably younger who may not be familiar with your favorite artists:  “Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin, she don’t remember the Queen of Soul, it’s hard times befallen The Soul Survivors, she thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old…”

Dvk88njW0AAk-WJThe Dutch rock band Golden Earring has had a long history of success in their native Netherlands, but their big moment on US airwaves came with the 1973 Top Ten hit “Radar Love,” a classic tune about a guy who’s always on the road, and dying to get home to his lady.  To drive the point home, the lyrics refer to a long-ago romantic hit by a long-forgotten female vocalist who used to top the charts:  “The radio is playing some forgotten song, Brenda Lee‘s comin’ on strong…”

Unknown-72Soft rock crooner Stephen Bishop enjoyed success in the ’70s and ’80s with hits like “It Might Be You” (from the “Tootsie” film soundtrack) and “Save It For a Rainy Day,” but his biggest chart hit was the 1976 tearjerker “On and On,” which referenced Ol’ Blue Eyes himself in the second verse:  “Poor ol’ Jimmy sits alone in the moonlight, saw his woman kiss another man, so he takes a ladder, steals the stars from the sky, puts on (Frank) Sinatra and starts to cry…”

4ac225c45ac0719eabaf8d7e62bac261British rockers Deep Purple were scheduled to perform at a venue in Montreux, Switzerland, which was to be recorded for a live album, but at a concert held there the previous night, a reckless fan accidentally started a fire.  Deep Purple turned that story into their 1973 signature song, “Smoke on the Water,” and the lyrics called out the band that had been performing:  “We all came out to Montreux on the Lake Geneva shoreline to make records with a mobile, we didn’t have much time, Frank Zappa and the Mothers were at the best place around, but some stupid with a flare gun burned the place to the ground…”

Unknown-73Don Brewer, the drummer for Grand Funk Railroad,  came up with the song “We’re An American Band” and they got studio wizard Todd Rundgren to produce it, resulting in a #1 US hit that broadened the band’s audience.  The lyrics relate the ups and downs of life on the road, where their time spent offstage was sometimes spent in the company of other artists:  “Up all night with Freddie King, I got to tell you, poker’s his thing, booze and ladies keep me right as long as we can make it to the show tonight, we’re an American band…”

511Iw4aV0ALIn 1972, British rockers Mott the Hoople were about to hang it up due to lack of commercial success.  They got a big lift from David Bowie, who penned “All the Young Dudes” for them to record, and it ended up becoming one of the anthems of the glam rock movement on both sides of the Atlantic.  Two references to other artists show up in the lyrics:  “Television man is crazy saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks, oh man, I need TV when I’ve got T. Rex…”  “And my brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones, we never got off on that revolution stuff, what a drag, too many snags…”

Club_at_the_end_of_the_streetElton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin finally got around to referencing another musician on Elton’s 1989 LP “Sleeping With the Past,” which contains songs meant to reflect the style of 1960s R&B.  On the Motown-inspired “Club at the End of the Street,” which leveled off at #28 on the U.S. singles chart, Taupin described the atmosphere you might find in smaller tucked-away venues:  “From the alleyways where the catwalks gently sway, you hear the sound of Otis (Redding) and the voice of Marvin Gaye, in this smoky room, there’s a jukebox plays all night, and we can dance real close beneath the pulse of a neon light…”

lynyrd-skynyrd_sweet-home-alabama_21In the early ’70s, when Neil Young wrote a couple of songs (“Southern Man,” “Alabama”) taking the South to task for its racist history, Lynyrd Skynyrd took exception and wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” in defense of their homeland.  Their lyrics came right out and mentioned Young not once but three times in one verse:  “Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her, well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down, well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow…”

51IsE5BzGDL._SS500In 1983, for his LP “Hearts and Bones,” Paul Simon wrote the song “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” which used the name of the often neglected ’50s R&B singer to talk about the night John Lennon was shot:  “On a cold December evening, I was walking through the Christmastide, when a stranger came up and asked me if I’d heard John Lennon had died, and the two of us went to this bar, and we stayed to close the place, and every song we sang was for the late great Johnny Ace, yeah yeah yeah…”

hqdefault-20Back in 1980, when John Mellencamp was going by the name Johnny Cougar, he had his first chart success (#17) with “Ain’t Even Done With the Night,” his first attempt at writing a soul song.  The lyrics speak of the frustration and eager hormones involved in early romance, referencing one of the best singers from that genre:  “Well, our hearts beat like thunder, I don’t know why they don’t explode, you got your hands in my back pockets, and Sam Cooke‘s singin’ on the radio…”

hqdefault-21Thunder Road,” one of Bruce Springsteen’s most celebrated songs from his pivotal “Born to Run” album, tells the tale of a young man longing to break out of his dead-end existence and coax the target of his infatuation to join him on his journey of discovery.  He uses the name of a ’50s icon to push the point home:  Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, hey, that’s me, and I want you only, don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again…”

Jackie-Wilson-SaidIn 1972, Van Morrison boldly kicked off his “Saint Dominic’s Preview” LP with “Jackie Wilson Said (“I’m in Heaven When You Smile),” an overt reference to the energetic R&B singer (and his debut single, “Reet Petite” from 1957).  The lyrics use Wilson’s name to start the song, but the rest of it is really just a joyous love tune:  Jackie Wilson said it was ‘Reet Petite,’ the kind of love you got knock me off my feet, let it all hang out, and you know I’m so wired up, don’t need no coffee in my cup, let it all hang out…”

This trend shows no signs of slowing down, either.  Barenaked Ladies had two songs on their 1992 debut LP called “Brian Wilson” and “Be My Yoko Ono.”  Then there’s Taylor Swift’s 2006 debut single “Tim McGraw,” followed not so coincidentally by Tim McGraw’s 2007 song “Kristofferson” and Eric Church with his 2011 country hit “Springsteen.”  Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera teamed up that same year with the #1 pop hit “Moves Like Jagger,” which focused on how the narrator claims he can mimic the famous singer’s stage presence:  “Look into my eyes and I’ll own you with them moves like (Mick) Jagger, I’ve got the moves like Jagger…”

09ff8cbd79868ca287deef0138df0675.1000x1000x1Even Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, two of the most celebrated songwriters of the past half-century, have not been averse to mentioning another artist by name.  Mitchell’s wonderfully playful “Barangrill” from 1972’s “For the Roses” album cites Unknown-75one of pop music’s icons from the ’40s and ’50s: “The guy at the gas pump, he’s got a lot of soul, he sings ‘Merry Christmas’ for you just like Nat King Cole…”  Dylan’s 2006 track “Thunder on the Mountain” makes a blatant reference to a relatively new singer he admired:  “I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying, when she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line, I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be, I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee…”

 

In the white room with black curtains

In early 1969, following the breakup of the first “supergroup” power trio Cream, Eric Clapton pondered his next move.

He had been in the Yardbirds during their formative years; he had done a memorable stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and he had been a key factor in the international success of Cream.  But a ferocious personality conflict between drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, along with exhaustion from relentless touring, had taken their

6788e043968ef95eed19d26bf0721565

Blind Faith:  Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton

toll, bringing the group’s existence to an end after only two years, much to Clapton’s relief.

Through it all, there was another musician he had been admiring from afar:  Steve Winwood, first the wunderkind singer/keyboardist of The Spencer Davis Group and then the founder and key sparkplug of the folk-jazz-rock band Traffic.

When Clapton heard Traffic was either taking a break or breaking up, he reached out to Winwood.  What say we get together and jam a bit and see what happens?  Winwood was keen to the idea, so they met in an isolated cottage in the English countryside to try out some new songs.

They’d been there only a day when there was a knock at the door.  Standing there was Baker.  “Here I am,” he announced.  Winwood, knowing Baker’s abilities, welcomed him in with open arms, but Clapton appeared deflated.  Oh shit, he thought, how did he even find us out here?

This anecdote serves as an illustration of Baker’s intimidating presence and aggressive perseverance, even in places where he wasn’t necessarily wanted.  As Britain’s The Guardian put it, “Certainly Baker’s physical makeup doesn’t really help to contradict most people’s image that he’s a direct descendant of King Kong or the Wild Man of Borneo.  He has a huge shaggy head of red hair and a beard to match.  Mere mortals have been known to quail before his glowering, rolling eyes.  His teeth are chipped, his grin evil.”

None of that mattered much when he sat down behind his massive drum kit and started ginger-bakerto play.  He is regarded by many, including most drummers, to be perhaps the best drummer ever, melding a jazz background and inventive African rhythms to create a singular approach that has inspired rock drummers for decades.  In the late ’60s, he pioneered the archetypal rock concert drum solo, and he introduced the two-bass-drum configuration which became standard throughout the industry in the ’70s and beyond.

Now the rock music world mourns Baker’s passing last week at the age of 80, a victim of multiple diseases that he suffered with for his last 10-15 years — obstructive pulmonary problems, degenerative osteoarthritis and progressive cardiac issues.

He was, by all accounts, a difficult man, which is why Clapton had been so wary about including Baker into the fold of Blind Faith, the new group he’d been nurturing with Winwood.

“I’m a prickly bastard, no doubt about it,” he said in a 2004 interview.  Indeed, a 2012 documentary about the mercurial drummer, entitled “Beware of Mr. Baker,” includes a scene when Baker attacked filmmaker Jay Bulger because he didn’t like how the project was progressing.

Born Peter Edward Baker in South London in 1939, “Ginger” (named for his shock of flaming red hair) took to the drums by age 14, inspired by jazz drummers like Britain’s Phil Seaman and U.S. legends like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.  He first gained notoriety with The Graham Bond Organisation, an R&B band with strong jazz leanings, where he met and began clashing with bassist/vocalist Bruce.

Despite the unpredictable relationship between Baker and Bruce, the two agreed to work together again couple years later, this time with Clapton on guitar, forming Cream (so named because they were considered the cream of British musicians on their respective instruments).  From mid-1966 until late 1968, the trio reigned supreme, playing more

GettyImages-75091893

Cream:  Clapton, Baker, Bruce

than 400 concerts and releasing four hugely successful albums, becoming monumentally influential even as they were imploding from within.

Baker always felt he wasn’t given due songwriting credit for many of Cream’s songs.  While he is credited for writing obscure deep album tracks like “Pressed Rat and Warthog,” “Blue Condition” and “Passing the Time,” he missed out on any credit for the big-royalty songs from their catalog.  He thought it unfair that copyright laws don’t recognize drumbeats (however inventive or catchy or as integral to a song as they may be) for songwriting royalties.  “It’s crazy,” he fumed.  “One of the most important things in pop music, any music, is the beat.  But in the eyes of the law, it’s melody, harmony and lyrics that matter.  I added the 5/4 time introduction to Cream’s hit ‘White Room,’ and I suggested to Jack Bruce that the tempo for ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ was way too fast and should be much slower.  These were both important contributions to those tracks, but I got no credit whatsoever.”

Baker also bristled when he talked about his drumming style during his days with Cream.  “I hear they consider me a pioneer of heavy metal drumming.  I loathe heavy metal.  I think it is an abortion.  A lot of younger rock drummers would come up and say, ‘Man, you were my influence, the way you thrashed the drums,’” he noted.  “They didn’t seem to understand I was thrashing just so I could hear what I was playing above the over-amplified volumes from the guitar and bass.  It was anger, not enjoyment.  And it was painful.  I suffered onstage because of all those Marshall amps turned way up.  I didn’t like it then, and like it even less now.”      

He found it amusing when he would be labeled “best rock drummer” in reader polls.

Ginger Baker death

Baker in 2007

“Oh, for God’s sake, I’ve never played rock,” he said in 2013. “Cream was two jazz players and a blues guitarist playing improvised music.  We never played the same thing two nights running … It was jazz.”

Baker’s playing made use of syncopation and “ride cymbal” patterns characteristic of bebop and other advanced forms of jazz, as well as the frequent application of African rhythms.  He often utilized differing timbres and tempos in his percussive work, using a variety of other percussion instruments in addition to the standard drum kit.

Said Baker in 2012, “Drummers are really nothing more than time-keepers.  They’re the time of the band.  It’s the drummer’s job to make the others sound good.  I don’t consider I should have as much recognition as, say, a brilliant guitar player.  I think the best thing a drummer can have is restraint when he’s playing – and so few have that these days.  They think playing loud is playing best.”

If you listen to songs like Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” it shows Baker’s mastery of the high hat and the restrained approach he referred to in the 2012 comment.  Still, the incendiary drumming you hear in most live Cream recordings — most notably “Spoonful” from “Wheels of Fire” — is jaw-dropping in its complexity and performance.

Said Neal Pert of Rush last week, “His playing was revolutionary – extrovert, primal and inventive.  He set the bar for what rock drumming could be.  Every rock drummer since has been influenced in some way by Ginger, even if they don’t know it.”

Michael Balzary, better known as Flea, the bassist of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, said he was in awe of Baker’s legacy.  “There was so much freedom in his playing.  What a wild man.  Those rhythms we’ve heard all our lives, he just plucked them out of the sky.”

blind-faith-eric-clapton-1Following the short-lived Blind Faith experience, Baker formed Ginger Baker’s Air Force in 1970, a somewhat bloated group of jazz-rock fusion musicians that included, at various times, Winwood, Traffic flautist Chris Wood, Afrocentric drummer Rebi Kebaka and ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine, among many others.  They relied on lengthy jams and unrehearsed noodlings that found their onto two LPs in 1970 but never sold well.

“I can only echo the words and thoughts that have been shared by various mutual friends,” said Laine following Baker’s death.  “I think we gelled musically in a way that is rare and that is really all that matters.  I will always defend his reputation as a hard nut to crack because his honesty was second to none, and his heart was an open book for all to see.”

Baker dabbled in heroin and other drugs during that period, and it took watching his good friend Jimi Hendrix die after a debauched night on the town together for Baker to finally begin the difficult journey of recovering from substance abuse.  Feeling he couldn’t pull that off in Europe, he packed up and traveled to Africa, where he spent most of the rest of his life.  He opened a studio in Lagos, Nigeria, where Paul McCartney was one of the first to visit.  “We worked together on the ‘Band On the Run’ album in his ARC Studio there,’ said McCartney last week.  “Ginger was a wild and lovely guy.”

While living in South Africa, Baker withdrew from the public for years at a time, pursuing a passion for and investing much of his wealth in polo ponies, which left him in financial straits.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Baker traveled the world, working with nearly anyone who would hire him, constantly struggling to pay the bills and stay sober.  He played with such bands as Hawkwind, Public Image Ltd, and the hard-rock group Masters of Reality before teaming up with Bruce once again in BBM, a short-lived power trio that included guitarist Gary Moore.

images-73

Cream’s reunion gig in 2005

In 1993, Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of Cream, and in 2005, Cream finally reunited for a concert at Royal Albert Hall, which was then made into a successful CD and concert DVD.  Both are well worth your time.

I was pleased to see that, despite the years of acrimony, the family of the late Jack Bruce offered this statement upon Baker’s death: “We would like to extend our sincere condolences to Ginger Baker’s family, friends and fans.  Ginger was like an older brother to Jack, and they fought like brothers often do, but they survived their love-hate relationship long enough to work together in The Graham Bond Organisation, make history with Cream and, much later, collaborate in BBM.  Each time, their musical chemistry was truly spectacular.  Rest in peace, Ginger, one of the greatest drummers of all time.”

Mark Holan, my former editor at Scene Magazine in Cleveland, is a huge fan of Baker’s work, and has posted several items this past week on Facebook about him.  Yesterday he displayed the cover of Cream’s debut LP “Fresh Cream” and reminisced, “I remember 72799625_10157922448373313_8637118432698957824_olistening to this album over and over, trying to figure out how Ginger could make that drum kit sound like a bulldozer gone berserk.”

I spent the other day listening to the 16-minute live drum solo “Toad” from Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” for the first time in decades.  When I was 14, I found that track compelling, listening to it dozens of times because of its mesmerizing rhythms and seemingly impossible techniques.  Even though it gave birth to the unfortunate practice of including momentum-killing drum solos at so many rock concerts in that 1970s era, I still have a soft spot for Baker’s virtuosity on display on “Toad” as well as on his solo in Blind Faith’s “Do What You Like.”

R.I.P., Mr. Baker.  Your work here is done and has not gone unappreciated.