Thursday, July 29, 2010


20. Irving Berlin

Berlin took the volume approach to fame: he wrote 1,500 songs. Some of them had to be hits.

But more than 'some' became hits. He became the most important American songwriter of the 20th century. Popular music would be a vastly different place without him. He's the only artist on the list not born in the U.S. He is so quintessential there's no getting around his inclusion.

He started with ragtime, and 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' became a world-wide smash. This was a major national development. Gershwin states, "by introducing and perfecting ragtime he had actually given us the first germ of an American musical idiom." He was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, the tail end of a show tune legacy begun in the age of the Follies. His scores range from 'Annie Get Your Gun' to the Marx Brothers. He gave us 'Blue Skies,' 'White Christmas' and put on the Ritz. It would be tremendously exciting if there is ever again such a songwriter in the next century. Exciting, but perhaps unlikely.

Key tracks: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911), There's No Business Like Show Business (1946), God Bless America (1938), which show the astounding range of a man who kept up with every trend.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

There's No Business Like Show Business

God Bless America

19. Chuck Berry

I tend to think that three people invented rock: Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. But for longevity and on-going relevance there's only Berry.

The electric guitar came out of jazz (Charlie Christian, for example). Bo Diddley let his guitar show off, and Berry established it as the rock instrument it is now. He gave the guitar solos and brought rock and roll out as distinct from rhythm and blues. And invented how to be a rock star.

His type of songs dominated rock until the Beatles: songs of teen romance and consumerism. Berry will forever be tied to fast cars, high school, and jukeboxes. It was a formula, but it worked very well for nearly 30 top hits (about equal to Elvis). No matter. Berry is still performing and duck-walking to his classics, forever secure with the knowledge that he made rock and roll move. They're all indebted to him, and know it.

Key tracks: Maybellene (1955), Roll Over Beethoven (1956), Johnny B. Goode (1958), which celebrate car chases, the new teen sound, and the democratic potential of Rock and Roll.


Roll Over Beethoven

Johnny B. Goode

18. Muddy Waters

T Bone Walker created electric blues and took it to L.A. Muddy Waters amplified it and took it to Chicago.

Too bad for T Bone. In American music there are certain places that are the hubs of musical development: New York, San Francisco, Nashville, Detroit - they all have their legacies. For Chicago it's blues, and for Chicago it's Muddy Waters. Muddy is probably the most influential bluesman of the second half of the century.

Muddy Waters more than anyone else was an inspiration for the British Blues explosion. Chicago blues, for many, is redundant: there simply is no other kind. Most of the best come from Chicago, and owe something to Waters either directly for their careers or for paving the way. His classic songs are simple pieces of struttin'. Waters' music will be around so long as bravado and blues go together: always.

Key tracks: Hoochie Coochie Man (1954), I Can't Be Satisfied (1948), Rock Me (1956), which let him brag and simmer.

Hoochie Coochie Man

I Can't Be Satisfied

Rock Me

17. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella's songbook interpretations are the starting point for many. She is the foremost vocalist of her type.

"With a vocal range spanning three octaves, she was noted for her purity of tone, impeccable diction, phrasing and intonation, and a 'horn-like' improvisational ability, particularly in her scat singing." Her voice is incomparable. Music critics worldwide cite her accuracy as the best ever. Period.

Ella recorded all the best with most of the best. She found a musical soul mate in Louis Armstrong, matching her voice to his. Their rendition of 'Porgy and Bess' shows off Fitzgerald's incredible abilities. To call her a jazz singer is a little limiting: she could take on anything that came her way.

Key tracks: Oh Lady Be Good, How High the Moon (1947), Someone to Watch Over Me (1950), which give a slight glimpse of her prodigious talent.

Oh Lady Be Good

How High the Moon

Someone to Watch Over Me

16. Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix was America's best guitarist. He was also one of the best rock stars.

"Jimi Hendrix is one of those extraordinary hubs of music where everybody lands at some point." Hendrix has as much cred in blues as psychedelic rock. He had the technical prowess and the crazy sound effects. His songs are all over the map: but all purely Hendrix. Few can pull that off.

He was the most talented of the American psychedelic singers. Electric Ladyland lets him jam out in ways that no one else had ever tried, or thought of. Much can be made of his eccentricities (upside-down and backwards playing, flaming guitar, fashion) but that would lose sight of his masterful abilities. As a man who could write blues as effectively as pop, rock out and do stuff so out there it was inimitable, Hendrix will remain a musical cornerstone.

Key tracks: Purple Haze (1967), All Along the Watchtower (1968), Star-Spangled Banner (1969), which are amongst his best shorter works.
Purple Haze
All Along the Watchtower
Star-Spangled Banner

No comments: