RIP

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Leon Russell, the wild-haired hillbilly pianist whose work with the legendary Wrecking Crew studio team propelled him to a solo career in which he followed his muse for decades, passed away yesterday at his home in Nashville, Tennessee. He was seventy-four years old and recovering from a recent surgery.

Russell was an irrepressibly rhythmic and swinging pianist, and in the sixties lent his skills to a wide variety of charting hits as a session musician. You’ll hear him on Glen Campbell’s cover of “Gentle on my Mind” and hits by Gary Lewis and the Playboys (“This Diamond Ring,” “Everybody Loves a Clown”) as well as smaller hits by an astounding range of artists: Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Bob Dylan (whose “Watching the River Flow, “Spanish is the Loving Tongue” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” were all produced by Russell), Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, to name just a few.

In his extraordinary solo career Russell recorded everything from psychedelic rock to cajun-infused swamp rock, bluegrass and straight honky tonk. His 1973 album Hank Wilson’s Back is about as close to a perfect Americana album as you’re ever going to find.

And once again, there’s a song we found suited to the times. Russell co-wrote and recorded “Stranger in a Strange Land” on his third album, which was released two years earlier. Alternately a plea for peace and a song of despair, Russell borrows from Robert Heinlein’s science fiction masterpiece and offers subtle hints of our need for a Savior.

Russell’s “Song for You” might serve as a more suitable epitaph. Elton John has called it an American classic. John recorded a record with Russell, who had once hired him as an opening act, in 2010 which led to a resurgence in his career. John always credited Russell for helping launch his own career, and was among the first to mourn his passing.

There is a War

If you’re friends with a lot of record collectors, your Facebook feed has likely been flooded with Leonard Cohen lyrics this week. The Canadian born novelist and poet who became a reluctant pop star after the release of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967 passed away earlier this week at the age of eighty-two. Hardly prolific (he only released fourteen albums, the most recent of which hit record stores just last month) and hardly commercial, he remains for many a favorite songwriter.

Cohen may be more known for covers of his songs — in fact, it was Judy Collins’ cover of “Suzanne” which first attracted the legend-making producer John Hammond to Cohen, who was thirty-three at the time he recorded that debut record. One of Cohen’s most famous compositions, “Hallelujah,” comes from a 1984 album which surprises listeners who discovered the song through the achingly beautiful Jeff Buckley recording made ten years later. On Various Positions, Cohen’s poetic lyrics are lost beneath poor production, excessive reverb and ill-places synthesizers, but nonetheless the song has become a widely-recorded modern standard.

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Our favorite Leonard Cohen song is not so often performed as “Suzanne” or “Hallelujah,” but oddly fitting for the atmosphere of our country at this time, as it was when it first appeared on New Skin for the Old Ceremony in 1974. It is called “There is a War.”

Music lovers around the world are mourning the passing of Neville Marriner, who with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was the most extensively recorded conductor on record. Marriner founded the chamber group in 1958 and on its earliest recordings played violin as well as conducting the twelve-member group.

Marriner spent seven years as the musical director of our Minnesota Orchestra, which happens to include our first childhood visits to Orchestra Hall. While this period was remembered by a former Orchestra president as a “golden era” in this morning’s Star Tribune, it is hardly as widely recorded as Marriner’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, who have sold more than 30 million discs over the years.

In fact, there are sadly few commercial recordings of the Minnesota Orchestra from 1979-86. Those you can find on LPs or CD reissues are worth a little looking around, like this performance of Dvorak’s Symphony no. 8 in G Major. Pressed by Philips Records but produced by the Minnesota Orchestra Association, the album was intended in part to showcase 3M’s new digital recording system. This is just a couple years after the three Sound 80 recordings (two of which by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra) which were revolutionary in their use of the technology. We posted one of these, the Grammy-winning recording of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, here.

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While working as the Minnesota Orchestra’s musical director, Marriner recorded the best-selling record of his career with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in 1984. The soundtrack to Amadeus is in fact one of the best-selling classical recordings by anyone. In agreeing to take on the project, Marriner insisted that no changes be made to Mozart’s scores to accommodate fitting them into the film, and held to his principle on the matter. The album peaked at #56 on the Billboard chart, a remarkable accomplishment for a classical record in the 80s. Marriner must have introduced hundreds of thousands of people to Mozart’s music.

Other records in Marriner’s limited catalog with the Minnesota Orchestra include recordings of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” a collection of incidental music by Wagner, and an album of violin concertos by Haydn and Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps. All are fairly easily found here in Minnesota, and there should even be copies here in your friendly neighborhood record shop this week.

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Folk singer Phil Ochs left us with a heartbreakingly small discography. His seven albums only hint at the depth of his insight and wit, which is why his songs are so often performed by others. “There But for Fortune,” made famous by Joan Baez in 1964, is one of several of Ochs’ songs overdue for a revival.

The message of this song, heard here from Ochs’ last traditional folk album, Phil Ochs In Concert, is deeply relevant to our contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, although he does not explicitly mention race in the song. While Ochs often exercises his satirical side in his songs, “There but for Fortune” is distinguished by its sincere empathy.

Another often-recorded song by Ochs is “Love me, I’m a Liberal,” which also made its debut on his live album.

Its lyrics are often interpreted anew, as for instance on a 1994 recording by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon or a 2008 single by Kevin Devine, but the message always remains a criticism of center-left politics and faux liberalism. We’d sure welcome a new version of this song today.

We’ve read that Phil Ochs in Concert is one of those ‘fake’ live albums, because the recordings from the New York and Boston concerts weren’t entirely use-able and studio recordings were overdubbed with audience sounds. This potential inauthenticity isn’t as significant considering so many of the songs didn’t appear elsewhere on Ochs’ albums (a studio recording of “There but for Fortune” was released on a Vanguard Records compilation in 1964). One of the songs introduced on this album is “When I’m Gone,” which could be seen as the bridge between Ochs’ early political folk career and his later works as a more sentimental singer on albums like the ironically named Greatest HitsThis song is also often performed by folk singers (an especially beautiful interpretation appears on Ani Difranco’s 2000 EP Swing Set) but Ochs’ own recording takes on depth in the wake of his tragic passing in 1976. Like the stark cover of his album Rehearsals for Retirement, “When I’m Gone” is strikingly morbid, but unlike much of his music it offers an insight into the optimism buried deep in Ochs’ soul.

Folk music today is often frustratingly apolitical, and we ache for an Ochs out there today. We’ve heard enough well-heeled suburbanites sing about riding rails n’ ramblin’ to last us a lifetime, and we’d like it once in a while they’d say something about the shitstorm which is this election cycle or our collective denial of an entire generation of black men. Or the shocking extent to which we as a society have apparently decided we’re not going to do anything about climate change. Or the fact that the last verse Buffy Saint Marie’s “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” can be updated with a new alarming injustice to indigenous people basically every year. Instead folk music today seems to be the music of introverted heartbreak, self-loathing and cultural numbness. Phil Ochs probably wouldn’t move a single unit in today’s market.

Note: This post is not about records, record stores, or even music. Proceed at your own risk.

We were heartbroken by the news that longtime Washington Post artist and syndicated cartoonist Richard Thompson had passed away. When Parkinson’s disease forced him to retire his daily comic strip, Cul de Sac, the world became a smaller, less wonderful place. Praise for his work has come from as high as reclusive Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson and as low as the Post itself, which ran this moving tribute to Thompson’s work this week.

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Thompson’s Cul de Sac didn’t skewer suburbia so much as it showed it to us through an skewed lens. He found magic in the mundane and inspired us to no end. Our family has been fighting over our collection of dog-eared, well-worn copies of his books since we heard the news of his passing.

 

 

Singer Marni Nixon passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-six in Manhattan. You may not recognize her name, but if you’re a fan of movie musicals you’ve heard her voice.

Nixon’s voice was dubbed over famous actresses in several huge hit films in the 60s, including West Side Story (above) where she sang all of Natalie Woods’ parts. Another notable, although uncredited, performance was as the singing voice of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, sparing the world the experience of hearing Audrey Hepburn sing.

Nixon was also an acclaimed singer of contemporary classical song, recording works by Schoenberg, Ives, Copland and Stravinsky.

Today it is customary for “ghost singers” to receive royalties on successful pictures and soundtrack albums, but in Nixon’s time it was not. The New York Times reported that her recording the singing parts of Anna in The King And I (which was one of the best-selling LPs of 1956), Nixon was paid $420.

i am the greatestSadly, even the greatest of them all must say goodbye. This world was too small a place for Muhammad Ali, a man who lived up to every boast he made on this 1963 album.

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