Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dancers and Performers Who Have Influenced Michael Jackson

Continuing with the dance theme of my blog earlier this week, Top 12 Songs About Dance Crazes, I thought I'd share this great clip I saw on youtube of people who had influenced Michael Jackson as a dancer and performer. MJ was without a doubt the most iconic and influential dancer/performer of the last 30 years, and he has influenced a generation of performers. And his influence is not just limited to artists in popular music, but it also extends to the world of dance. Many young dancers cite him as a major influence and the reason why they decided to pursue a career in dance. But who were the performers that inspired and influenced Michael Jackson?

What's fascinating about MJ's dance style is that he drew from several disparate sources and synthesized them into his own unique style. Some of those sources included tap, popping, jazz, locking and mime, to name a few. And he had a very diverse selection of influences. Some of them included James Brown, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, Jackie Wilson, Gene Kelly, Marcel Marceau, Sammy Davis, Jr., Charlie Chaplin and Jeffrey Daniel.

This clip focuses mainly on probably the two biggest influences on MJ's dance style--James Brown and Fred Astaire--but it also includes dance segments of lesser-known performers who had directly or indirectly influenced him. The video is very well-edited and also well-researched. I had never heard of a few of the performers featured in the video, and it was cool to learn about them.

Related blog entry: Michael Jackson's Bad: Out Of The Shadow Of Thriller

Bootsy's Rubber Band Performing "I'd Rather Be With You" Live In Houston

Here's a terrific clip of Bootsy and his Rubber Band performing their song "I'd Rather Be With You," in 1976 at the Houston Summit in Houston, Texas. In this performance, Bootsy displayed his considerable bass-playing skills on an incandescent Space Bass solo. Looking at the eyes of Bootsy and the Rubber Band members, it looks like they may have been partaking in a bit of the cannabis before this performance. In other words, these brothers were high! If the aim was to help them get more into the performance, it definitely worked.

Bootsy was perhaps the brightest star to emerge from the P-Funk army. In addition to his great talent as a musician and songwriter, Bootsy was (and still is) a consummate showman. His likable, charismatic personality instantly connects with audience members once he hits the stage, and he always looks like he's having just as much fun as they are.

This performance occurred during the high-water mark of funk music in the mid '70s where there were funk artists and bands aplenty. What James Brown had ignited a decade earlier came into full bloom, and it was truly One Nation Under a Groove for a brief, but glorious period.

Related blog entry: Bootsy Stretches Out His Funky Rubber Band On Late Night TV

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Top 12 Songs About Dance Crazes

From the Charleston to the Dougie, every generation has its own popular dance styles. It's interesting to watch old dance clips and see the type of dances that people were doing decades back. In the same way that music and fashion evoke a particular zeitgeist, dance styles also bring to mind a certain era. For instance, seeing a clip of couples doing the Jitterbug immediately brings to mind the World War II era in the 1940s, just as watching someone breakdancing evokes memories of the 1980s. Dance is an important part of contemporary culture, and that's why so many artists and bands have written songs about the popular dances of the day. I made a list of my 12 favorite songs about popular dances:

12) "The Spank" by James Brown (1978) - James released this phat jam in 1978 in recognition of the popular urban dance called "the spank." It's one of  his more underrated tracks. The slow-boiling groove is driven by a laid-back, strollin' bass line and is filled with tight horn lines and nasty guitar licks. The track is bad, but you should expect nothing less when the Godfather's at the helm.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

11) "Hitch Hike" by Marvin Gaye (1962) - This irresistible early Motown dance track was a great showcase for the talented soon-to-be R&B star Marvin Gaye. The song reached number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it Gaye's first top 40 single. Gaye co-wrote the song with William "Mickey" Stevenson and Clarence Paul, who were songwriters and record producers for Motown. The track triggered a brief dance craze, and Gaye would do the "Hitch Hike" dance during his live performances of the song.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

10) "The Bird" by The Time (1984) - Minneapolis bad boys The Time scored another hit with this rowdy funk cut. The song was written by Prince (under the pseudonym Jamie Starr) and Time members Morris Day and Jesse Johnson. Day livens up the track with squawking bird noises and his comically cocky player persona. The song is on The Time's third album Ice Cream Castles, which also includes their hit song "Jungle Love." The Time also performed "The Bird" in Prince's blockbuster film Purple Rain.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

9) "Cool Jerk" by the Capitols (1966) - This jammin' dance track by Detroit soul trio the Capitols recognizes the huge 1960s' dance craze "the jerk". The song was inspired by the more sexualized version of the dance called the "pimp jerk" that people were doing in Detroit nightclubs at the time. The group renamed the song "Cool Jerk" to prevent it from possibly being banned on radio stations. The fact that having "pimp" in the title of a song could possibly get it banned from the airwaves shows how much things have changed and how relatively tame radio was back in the day. Legendary Motown in-house band The Funk Brothers played on the track, so it's not surprising that it grooves so hard. '80s girl band the Go-Go's recorded a solid cover of the song in 1981.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

8) "Da Butt" by E.U. (1988) - This funky club banger is by Washington D.C.-based go-go band E.U. The monster track became one of the biggest hits of the go-go sound, which is a funk subgenre that melds R&B, early hip hop and funk. Filmmaker Spike Lee was a big fan of the song. He used it in a scene for his second feature film School Daze and directed E.U.'s video for the song. Lee even had a cameo in the video. It's a lively party video with plenty of booty shaking, but still very tame compared to the ones made today.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

7) "Twistin' the Night Away" by Sam Cooke (1962) - The twist is one of the most popular dance crazes of all time. I think one of the reasons why it was so popular is because it was fairly easy to do, and people of all ages, races and social classes could get their twist on. A slew of twist songs were released in the early '60s. "Twistin' the Night Away" is one of the best of the the bunch. The late, great Sam Cooke wrote the song. The track shows what a gifted and versatile songwriter Cooke was. In addition to writing great dance songs like "Twistin' the Night Away," he also penned the powerful civil rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come," as well as the beautiful pop/soul classic "You Send Me" among a number of other great tracks. He was a rare and amazing talent.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

6) "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva (1962) - This bright, cheery dance tune was written by husband-and-wife songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King for teenage singer Eva Boyd, who would later be known by her stage name Little Eva. According to urban legend, Eva babysat for the couple's three-year-old daughter. They got the idea for the song while watching 16-year-old Eva dance with their daughter, and Eva's dancing reminded them of a locomotive. And, voila, a song was born. Apparently, the real story was a little less interesting. Eva was already an aspiring recording artist when she met King and Goffin. The couple thought she had a good singing voice and had her record "The Loco-Motion." Also, there was no "Loco-Motion" dance before the song was recorded. After it became a huge hit, Little Eva had to create a dance to go along with the song. The song is notable for appearing three separate times in the American pop charts top five, and each time in a different decade: Little Eva in 1962 (U.S. #1), Grand Funk Railroad in 1974 (U.S. #1) and Kylie Minogue in 1988 (U.S. #3). 

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

5) "The Humpty Dance" by Digital Underground (1990) - Digital Underground leader Shock G assumes his famous alter ego Humpty Hump on this hilarious but very funky rap song. The track is hook-filled and possesses a goofy charm that you don't find in many rap songs today. It has a hot beat with a sick, pulsating bass line. Digital Underground were influenced a lot by P-Funk, and you can definitely hear it on this track. The Humpty Hump character is sort of a demented composite of Sir Nose D'Voidoffunk and Groucho Marx. The track did extremely well on the charts; it topped the Rap Singles chart and climbed to number seven on the R&B charts and number 11 on the pop charts.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

4) "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell & the Drells (1968) - Archie Bell & the Drells' dance smash "Tighten Up" struck a chord with a large cross-section of listeners upon its release in 1968. The song topped both the pop and R&B charts and went on to sell four million copies. "Tighten Up" is named after a popular dance in Houston, Texas, and it is quite infectious. The song has this really upbeat vibe that puts the listener in a light, groovin' mood. Plus, the song boasts an incredibly hooky bass line. It is one of the most recognizable bass lines in soul music. The track also has some nice drumming on the breakdown as well as some cool guitar and organ parts. The song was ranked #265 on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time." The track was written by Archie Bell and fellow group member Billy Butler. The Drells recorded on legendary songwriting and production team Gamble & Huff's record label Philadelphia International Records.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

3) "Willie and the Hand Jive" by Johnny Otis (1958) - This jumpin' Bo Diddley-influenced R&B classic by Johnny Otis set off a big dance craze in the U.S. The song was the late R&B great's biggest hit, and boy does it jam. The song always makes me imagine one big hootenanny where backwoods folk and hillbillies (black and white) are tearing up the dance floor together. The song climbed to number nine on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and number five on the Billboard R&B chart. Otis was a very accomplished musician and was involved in several different facets of the music business during his long career. He was a talented multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, impresario, bandleader and producer. He had also been a DJ for a time as well as a talent scout. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer died on January 12, 2012 at the age of 90.

Listen to it here

download at Amazon

2) "Twist and Shout" by the Beatles (1963) - The Beatles rocked their mop-topped heads off on this raucous, electrifying cover of "Twist and Shout." The song rocks so hard that it just makes you want to get up and move. The track was originally recorded by Philadelphia R&B group the Top Notes in 1961, and the Isley Brothers had a go at it in 1962. The Isley Brothers radically changed the song's arrangement, which improved it significantly. The Beatles used the Isley's arrangement for their cover of the song, and straight up slayed it. The Beatles cover of "Twist and Shout" has become the definitive version of the song. It was used very effectively in a scene from the classic '80s teen film Ferris Bueller's Day Off  (1986).

Listen to it here

1) "Mother Popcorn (You Got to Have a Mother for Me)" parts 1&2 by James Brown (1969) - James dropped this extra lethal dose of funk back in 1969. The funk/soul legend created a kinetic dance called "the popcorn" a few years earlier and recorded several popcorn-related songs after that. "Mother Popcorn" is the funkiest of the bunch in my opinion. The track flows like a well-oiled funk motor, with jabs of hot brass, nasty guitars, badass drumming, and a heaping helping of funky bass. And as an added bonus, Maceo Parker contributes a gloriously funky sax solo. Oh, and let's not forget the great bridge where James lets loose with some blood-curdling soul screams.

James was on fire during this period. It seemed like every song he released was an instant funk classic, not to mention his incredible live shows. "Mother Popcorn" shot to number one on the R&B charts and number 11 on the pop charts. The Godfather definitely had the Midas touch going on at the time and was the undisputed boss of the funk game.

Listen to Part 1 here

Listen to Part 2 here

Download at Amazon

Honorable Mention: "Fopp" by the Ohio Players (1976) - Man, I almost forgot about this super-funky cut.

Listen to it here

Download at Amazon

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Toledo Symphony and Windborne Music Perform Thrilling Tribute to Michael Jackson

The Toledo Symphony and Windborne Music performed a musical tribute to Michael Jackson on March 23 and 24 at the Stranahan Theater in Toledo, Ohio.  "The Music of Michael Jackson" tribute included hits from each era in the pop/R&B superstar's celebrated career, from his early days with the Jackson 5 all the way up to his most recent releases before his untimely death in 2009 at the age of 50.  Brent Havens, the Berklee-trained conductor and arranger for Windborne Music, felt an MJ  tribute was due. “Someone needed to honor him,”said Havens in an article for The Toledo Journal. "We're paying homage to a legend." The tribute had plenty of dancing, with the show's lead vocalist, James Delsico, donning a fedora and a single white sequined glove to bust a few MJ moves.

Windborne Music recently completed "The Music of Michael Jackson" shows in Augusta, GA and Charlotte, N.C., and the shows went over extremely well, according to Havens. "The crowd just goes nuts,” he told The Toledo Journal. “It’s a fun time for everybody.”

Toledo news clip about "The Music of Michael Jackson" show

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Prince and Cee Lo Green Share the Stage At Madison Square Garden

Photo by Julio Enriquez
Prince and Cee Lo Green set the stage on fire in their performance of "Crazy." The performance took place at Madison Square Garden in New York during Prince's Welcome 2 America Tour in February of last year. "Crazy," of course, is the 2006 smash by Gnarls Barkley, the dynamic musical duo made up of Cee Lo and ace musician/songwriter and producer Danger Mouse. Cee Lo's vocals were in top form during the performance, sounding a bit more gritty than on the original recording. And Prince lays down a sensational guitar solo. It seems that he's doing more guitar solos in his concerts these days, which is awesome. I also like the Purple One's continued practice of bringing talented well-known performers on stage to perform a song with him during his shows.

Additionally, Prince's band, the New Power Generation, were on-point as usual. I think these two talented, creative cats should record some music together. The pairing could potentially produce something epic.

Related blog entry: Prince Tears the Roof Off the Sucka At The Forum in Los Angeles 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Bernie Worrell Orchestra Performing at Brooklyn Bowl

The Bernie Worrell Orchestra will be playing at Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, New York on March 23. At the show, the funk icon and his band will play some P-Funk classics, originals from his solo albums, as well as covers of some jazz standards. The Bernie Worrell Orchestra is composed of two guitarists, two drummers, a bassist,  a percussionist, and a three-piece horn section. The show will include special guest appearances by the Chapin Sisters, Andre Lassalle (of SociaLybrium), Jimmy Destri (of Blondie) and the Matt O'Ree Band. The tickets are only $8. Here's a link to get ticket, time and location info about the show.

The Bernie Worrell Orchestra will also be playing dates in Providence, RI (March 30), Fairfield, CT (April 1) and Blairstown Theater, NJ (April 13). And on June 23, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and his band will headline the Fourth Annual "Local & Legend Music Festival" at Unionville Vineyards, Ringoes, NJ on June 23.

And in early June of last year, Worrell released a jazz album titled Bernie Worrell: Standards. On the album,Worrell puts his singular keyboard wizardry on jazz classics such as "Take the "A" Train," "Watermelon Man," and "Take Five." It is the P-Funker's eighth solo album.

The Bernie Worrell Orchestra Performing "Watermelon Man" at the Bowery Electric in New York

Download Bernie Worrell: Standards at Amazon

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Singer-Songwriter Natalie Hawkins' Excellent Cover of Beatles Classic "I Want to Hold Your Hand"

I thought I'd share this great video clip of singer-songwriter Natalie Hawkins performing a beautiful  cover of Beatles smash "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It's one of the best covers I've ever come across on youtube. Hawkins uses the arrangement that was used in the film Across the Universe, and to be honest, I feel that her cover is far superior to the one in the film. I mean, she absolutely kills it. Her heartfelt rendition really underscores the song's gorgeous melody and has a quiet power. Her version expands the meaning of the song. It takes it beyond the puppy-love innocence of the Beatles' original version and turns it into something more substantial, a deeper love.

There are more clips on youtube of the San Francisco-based singer covering popular songs, including Adele's "Someone Like You," "Leave Me Alone" by Michael Jackson and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." There are also a few videos of Hawkins performing her own songs, which are also great. Hawkins is quite a well-rounded artist and performer. She has done musical theater and has appeared in musicals throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and played the title role of Belle in a production of Beauty and the Beast.

Hawkins is currently working on an album of original songs that is set to be released sometime this

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vintage Trouble Light Up The Stage With Soulful Old-School Sound

Vintage Trouble (VT for short) is a talented retro soul/rock band that has been blowing up recently. The band has been steadily building its fan base with its authentic, rootsy sound. Vintage Trouble's music is a rich amalgam of soul, hard rock, blues, funk and R&B. The band was formed in 2010 in Hollywood, California by singer/guitarist Ty Taylor and guitar player Nalle Colt. The two musicians shared a mutual love for original soul and R&B and set up a basic home studio in Venice Beach where they began laying the groundwork for Vintage Trouble. Bassist Rick Barrio Dill and drummer Richard Danielson soon joined the fold, and a full band was formed. The quartet moved to Laurel Canyon to rehearse and fine-tune its sound. Within two weeks of rehearsals, the band was ready to set the world on fire and began playing at local clubs and late-night speakeasies.

Vintage Trouble has already built a dedicated global following through their electrifying live shows. The live shows highlight Ty's superb vocal skills. The charismatic performer's soulful, gritty vocals sort of puts me in mind of '80s R&B/pop star Terence Trent D'Arby, another talented retro soulster. Ty has been compared to soul legends Otis Redding and James Brown, both key inspirations on him and the band. However, he also brings his own unique swagger and originality to the music. Ty already had a pretty impressive resume before forming Vintage Trouble. He was a vocalist and guitarist for mid-'90s R&B group Dakota Moon and a former Rock Star: INXS contestant. He's an ideal front man for a retro soul/rock band, as he's equally adept at singing in both genres. And in addition to Ty, all the members are terrific musicians. They play with deep soul, and you can feel their love and the passion for the music during their performances.

The band recently took their sweet soul music across the pond and embarked on a successful tour in the UK, which included performances with Bon Jovi and Brian May. The band played shows at the Hard Rock Calling Festival and the Barclaycard Wireless Festival in London's Hyde Park. Additionally, VT were Grand Prize Winners at the 2012 iPhone Film Festival for their "Nancy Lee" video, which was shot, directed and edited by three-time Emmy Award winner Alen Petkovic and features former Pussycat Doll Carmit Bachar. VT was also named "Best New Band" at the 2011 Ultimate Classic Rock Awards. The band also played dates in Australia. VT will return to the UK in June to play some dates in London.

The band recently played at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas on March 14 and 16. VT was also a featured band at Billboard's annual showcase at SXSW on March 14, which was headlined by Lionel Richie. The band will continue to keep busy for the remainder of March and throughout April. Their tour dates will include stops in Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, New York City and a number of other locations. Also, VT's debut album, The Bomb Shelter Sessions, will get its U.S. release on April 24, 2012.

VT perform their song "Blues Hand Me Down" live

VT's award-winning video to their song "Nancy Lee"

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The People in Me By The Music Machine

I've recently been replaying this awesome track called "The People in Me" by '60s garage-psychedelic band the Music Machine. When I first heard the song a few months ago, I was hooked, and now I can't get enough of it. The song is anchored by Keith Olsen's bustling bass line and is filled with cool psychedelic guitar riffs and great Farfisa organ vamps. And Sean Bonniwell's distinctive voice adds a dark, mysterious edge to the track. The haunting background vocals are also quality. "The People in Me" is from the band's debut album (Turn On) The Music Machine, released in 1966.

The Los Angeles-based band was formed in 1965. Singer-songwriter/guitarist Bonniwell was the Music Machine's founder and leader. Bonniwell, who died last December of lung cancer at the age of 71, was a gifted songwriter and wrote most of the band's songs.  In addition to Bonniwell and Olsen, the other members of the band were drummer Ron Edgar, lead guitarist Mark Landon and organist/pianist Doug Rhodes. Their biggest hit was "Talk Talk." The band went balls out on the track, and I can see why it's their most popular song. Raw, loud and ferocious, "Talk Talk" is one of the finest examples of  proto-punk from the '60s. But with that being said, I still prefer "The People in Me." I just dig the flow of the groove more, and it has an indelible melody. Plus, the song has a terrific bass line, and I'm a sucker for songs with really great bass lines.

Although the Music Machine were only together for four years and released only two albums in that time, their influence is undeniable. The band is often credited as being one of the progenitors of punk rock and has influenced pivotal punk bands such as the Ramones, the Stranglers and the Dictators.  The members of the Music Machine were also known for wearing all-black clothing, which was also quite influential on the punk scene in the '70s. They wore black turtlenecks, boots, leather vests and a single right-hand glove. They also sported identical dyed mop-top haircuts. This look gave the band a mysterious and slightly menacing aura. The Music Machine was just an all-around badass band and pretty underrated if you ask me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

P-Funk Alumni And Deee-Lite Burn Up the Stage in Rio

Here's a cool video of the group Deee-Lite performing their hit "Groove Is in the Heart" live in Rio de Janeiro in 1991. Bootsy Collins is holdin' down the bottom; Bernie Worrell is handling the keys, and Gary "Mudbone" Cooper provides backing vocals. And another notable P-Funk alum is also in the mix. On guitar is none other than Kidd Funkadelic himself, Michael Hampton. And Deee-Lite lead singer Lady Miss Kier shows she knows how to move in this great live performance.

Deee-Lite was a house club/dance group that was formed in 1986 in New York City, NY. The group consisted of DJ, singer/songwriter Lady Miss Kier (born Kieren Kirby in Youngstown, OH); Super DJ Dmitry (a classically trained guitarist and Russian emigre born Dmitry Brill); and Jungle DJ Towa Towa (born Doug Wa-Chung in Tokyo, Japan). The group's sound was a mixture of house, techno, rap, ambient, and funk.  Deee-Lite had a light-hearted, zany  appeal about them that was irresistible, and Kier was known for her outrageous '70s outfits and over-the-top stage persona. The group maintained a solid following until they broke up in 1996.

"Groove Is in the Heart" is featured on Deee-Lite's debut album World Clique (1990) and is the group's biggest hit. The song topped the charts in Australia and made it to number four on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. It  also charted in the top 20 in several other countries. The song features elements of funk, hip hop and disco. The hooky bass line was sampled from Herbie Hancock's track "Bring Down the Birds," which was featured on the soundtrack for the film Blow-Up (1966). The song also samples a drum part and whistle from R&B singer Vernon Burch's song "Get Up," as well as the horn riff from jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson's track "Psychedelic Sally." Additionally, the track includes a rap from Q-Tip, who was a founding member of the critically acclaimed rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Unfortunately, Q-Tip is not present on this clip of their live performance in Rio.

The video for "Groove Is in the Heart" enjoyed heavy rotation on MTV and featured guest appearances from Bootsy and sax legend Maceo Parker.

Groove Is In The Heart at Amazon

Related blog entry: I'm Tired of Good, I'm Trying Bad - Bootsy Collins, featuring Lady Miss Kier

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Killer Bass Cover of Michael Jackson's Speed Demon

Federico Malaman & Laurus Bass
Photo by Laurus Bass
I recently came across a great clip of this amazing bass player doing a cover of Michael Jackson's song "Speed Demon."  While playing his rapid-fire runs, he manages to keep the groove right in the pocket and maintains the heavy funk throughout. What's particularly impressive is the slap run that he does on the chorus was actually played on a synthesizer on the original version, but he replicates it perfectly on the bass.  The dude's a beast.

The bass player's name is Federico Malaman, and he's from Noventa Vicentina, which is a town in the province of Vicenza, Veneto, northern Italy. He's a graduate of the Conservatory of Verona, E.F. Dall’Abaco” where he studied double bass. Federico has worked as a bassist with various orchestras in classical music, including the Orchestra of the Olimpico in Vicenza, the Youth Orchestra of Veneto, and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Verona. And he has played with notable musicians such as George Benson, Dave Stryker, Michael O'Neal and Andrea Braido. The bassist has played on several recordings as well.

Federico plays bass, double bass, piano and keyboards, and is also an arranger. He has several clips on youtube that showcase his stellar bass playing. He also does a great bass cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Related blog entry: Michael Jackson's Bad: Out of the Shadow of Thriller

Friday, March 9, 2012

Screamin' Jay Hawkins: The Original Madman of Rock

Screamin' Jay Hawkins in concert
Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin
Legendary music wild man Screamin' Jay Hawkins was the first shock rocker, and he had a tremendous influence on rock music and pop culture. Years before Gene Simmons was spitting up blood at KISS concerts and Alice Cooper was hanging himself on stage, Hawkins was doing his wild-man shtick. The singer/musician was known for his over-the-top, highly theatrical stage antics back in the day. His shows consisted of macabre stage props and gaudy costumes. He would often emerge from a coffin on stage draped in a gold and leopard-skin get-up, holding a cigarette-smoking skull on a stick and wearing a bone through his nose.

Hawkins would also sometimes wield rubber snakes and fake tarantulas on stage while wearing a cape and sporting a boar's tooth around his neck. And the fact that this was a black man doing all this wild stuff back in the 1950s made his manic stage antics all the more ballsy. I can imagine that he probably scared the bejesus out of a lot of folks.

Hawkins often caught flack for his bizarre stage antics. The NAACP voiced concerns that his voodoo-invoking, cannibalistic stage persona might be associated with African Americans in general. Mothers picketed his concerts saying that they were in poor taste as well as the National Coffin Association that insisted his act was poking fun at the dead.  Nevertheless, his fan base continued to grow. Everyone wanted to check out Hawkins' show at least once to see if it was as insane and over-the-top as they had heard. But all the gimmicks and crazy stage antics aside, Hawkins  had genuine musical talent. He was a skilled pianist/songwriter and possessed a powerful, classically trained bass-baritone singing voice.

Hawkins is most recognized for his seminal hit "I Put a Spell on You" (released in 1956). It is considered one of the most influential rock songs of all time. Some of the notable artists who have covered the song include Nina Simone, Van Morrison, Marilyn Manson, Bryan Ferry and Joe Cocker. Hawkins originally intended the song to be a refined blues ballad, but during a drunken recording session, he transformed it into the frightening, guttural classic that we know today. Hawkins screamed, snorted and grunted his way through the entire song. The singer was so drunk when he recorded the track that he didn't remember the session the next day.

The song is raw and primal and a bit unsettling upon first listen. The track also has a killer groove and is quite infectious. Many radio stations refused to play the song, because they felt Hawkins' guttural grunts, howls and snorts were too sexually suggestive. And despite the song receiving very little radio airplay upon its original release, it still sold over a million copies. The track earned the singer cult status in the United States, Europe and Japan. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame selected "I Put a Spell on You" as one of the "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll."

Hawkins had quite an interesting and exciting history prior to becoming a recording artist. The singer was born Jalacy Hawkins in Cleveland, Ohio on July 18, 1929. He was adopted from an orphanage when he was 18 months old and raised by a Native American family of the Blackfoot Tribe. Something of a prodigy, he taught himself how to play piano as a toddler and learned to play the saxophone when he was 14. Inspired by Paul Robeson, he had aspirations to become an opera singer and studied opera and classical piano at the Ohio Conservatory of Music. He also served in the Air Force during World War II and claimed that he was tortured while a prisoner of war. One story states that upon being liberated, he taped a hand-grenade to his torturer’s mouth and pulled the pin, blowing his head off. Hawkins also boxed for a time and won a Golden Gloves championship in his teens.

When his career as an opera singer didn't pan out, Hawkins became a blues singer and pianist. His first job as a musician was serving as the pianist/valet for veteran jazz and R&B guitarist Tiny Grimes. Hawkins cut his first record, "Why Did You Waste My Time," in 1952.  Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders provided musical back up on the track. Hawkins joined Fats Domino's band as a pianist in 1954. However, the two musicians never saw eye-to-eye, and Hawkins didn't even last a year with the band. He was eventually fired for insisting on showing up to performances wearing gold and leopard-skin outfits and a turban. Following his firing from Fats Domino's band, Hawkins decided to strike out on his own and try his luck as a solo artist. Not long after becoming a solo artist, he scored his biggest hit with "I Put a Spell on You" in 1956.

In addition to "I Put a Spell on You," some of Hawkins' other well-known tracks include "Constipation Blues," "Little Demon," "Baptize me in Wine," and "Africa Gone Funky."

Hawkins also tried his hand at acting and had a part in independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch's critically acclaimed film Mystery Train (1989). And "I Put a Spell on You" was prominently featured in another Jarmusch film, Stranger than Paradise (1984). The use of the song in the film brought Hawkins a new generation of fans. He even toured with the Clash and Nick Cave in the early '90s

Hawkins had been married six times, and reportedly fathered 57 children. The singer died in Paris, France at the age 70 after suffering multiple organ failure following emergency surgery to treat an aneurysm.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins performing "I Put a Spell on You" live

The wild man shows his mellow side in a live performance of "Old Man River

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Funkadelic's Cholly (Funk Getting Ready To Roll)

"Cholly (Funk Getting Ready To Roll)" is a great funk track off Funkadelic's landmark album One Nation Under a Groove (1978). "Cholly" is a rather underrated song in the P-Funk canon. It has a sick groove with a wickedly funky bass line provided by Bootsy Collins. The late, great Garry "Starchild" Shider contributes the soulful lead vocal. The song has some clever lyrics about a jazz and classical music lover who suddenly has an epiphany when a friend introduces him to P-Funk.

The narrator, Cholly, realizes that he had been caught up in the "syndrome" and was always too uptight to really get down. By the end of the song, Cholly is ready to hop on the Motherhip and freely express the funk that was within him all along and leave all his hangups behind. P-Funk has freed him from all his constrictions, and he's able to be his true funky self.

The song also has a cool hook in the "Funk Gettin' Ready to Roll" chant. The live version became a P-Funk concert staple in the late '70s.  Shider would incite everyone in the audience to sing the "Funk Gettin' Ready to Roll" chant to get them in a party mood.

The track was written by George Clinton, Bootsy and the multi-talented Walter "Junie" Morrison, who was formerly a member of the legendary R&B/funk band the Ohio Players, where he was a writer, producer, keyboardist and vocalist. I used to play this track to death back in the day.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Duwende Performing at Java Jazz Festival

Award-winning a cappella band Duwende are performing all three days (March 2, 3, and 4) at Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival 2012. The band wrapped up their first show yesterday and are scheduled to perform today and on Sunday. Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival was started in 2005 and is held for three days (Friday to Sunday) in the first week of March every year at the Jakarta International Expo in Jakarta, Indonesia. The aim of the festival was "bringing the world to Indonesia," and that goal has definitely been accomplished. It is now one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world, attracting more than 50,000 visitors from across the globe each year.

Approximately 1,500 musicians from 15 countries are expected to perform at the three-day festival. Some of the artists who are scheduled to take the stage at this year's Java Jazz Festival include Stevie Wonder, Erykah Badu, Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, Pat Metheny and Al Jarreau & the George Duke Trio. So Duwende are in very good company.

Duwende are currently one of the hottest a cappella bands on the music scene, and their fan base continues to grow each year. In May of last year, the band released a Michael Jackson tribute album titled Remember: The Music Of Michael Jackson, which contains a cappella covers of some of the late pop superstar's biggest hits.

Related blog entry: Duwende: A Cappella Magic

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cover Songs That Improve on the Original Versions

It's really difficult to improve on a great song, but there have been occasions where the cover has outshone the original version. In these instances, an artist or band took an already great song and raised it to a whole new level of excellence and made it their own. These covers accentuate the strengths inherent in the original version and add a little something extra. I've made a list of 11 cover songs in which I feel that this has been done. The list is in no particular order.

"We Can Work It Out" (1970) - Stevie Wonder  [original by the Beatles released in 1965]

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge Beatles fan, but I  feel that Stevie's soulful cover outshines the original. No doubt about it, the Beatles' version is great, but Stevie brings an infectious joy and positive energy to his rendition that makes the original seem rather sedate by comparison. Plus, he delivers a kick-ass harmonica solo on his version.

Listen to it here

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"Blinded by the Light" (1976) - Manfred Mann's Earth Band [original by Bruce Springsteen released in 1973]

Some feel that Manfred Mann's version of "Blinded by the Light" is overblown and overproduced and lacks the soul and emotional depth of Springsteen's gritty, bare-bones original that appeared on his critically acclaimed debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973). However, I believe that Manfred Mann's cover brought the track to new epic heights and made it even more powerful. It is superbly arranged and underscores Springsteen's great lyrics. It is also Manfred Man's biggest hit, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Listen to it here

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Twist and Shout (1963) - "The Beatles" [original version by the Top Notes released in 1961]

The Beatles' galvanic cover of "Twist and Shout" leaves the tame original version by Philadelphia R&B group the Top Notes in the dust. John Lennon turned in one of his best vocal performances on the song. He put tons of passion and soul into his larynx-shredding lead vocals. In an interview for The Beatles Anthology, legendary music producer George Martin said that Lennon recorded his vocals for the song in two takes and had no voice left when he was done. The only cover I've heard that even comes close to touching it is the Isley Brothers' version, which was released a year before the Beatles' cover. In fact, the Beatles emulated the Isley Brothers' stellar arrangement of the song, but improved on it, which was no small feat.

Listen to it here

"Hazy Shade of Winter" (1987) - The Bangles [original version titled "A Hazy Shade of Winter" by Simon & Garfunkel released in 1966]

The Bangles bring a sense of urgency to this classic Simon & Garfunkel song. Simon & Garfunkel's original is also excellent, and I really dig both versions. However, I enjoy listening to the Bangles' rendition a bit more. The cover just has so much raw energy and is also quite poignant. The band definitely did the song justice and then some. The Bangles' version was featured on the soundtrack for the cautionary teen drama Less Than Zero in 1987. Many props to Paul Simon for penning this incredible track.

Listen to it here

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"Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" (1973) - Sly & the Family Stone [original by Doris Day released in 1956]

Sly & the Family Stone's gospel-drenched interpretation of "Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" adds a whole new dimension to Doris Day's cheery classic. You really feel the emotional impact of the lyrics on the Family Stone's cathartic, soul-bearing version, which appeared on their Fresh album in 1973. And here's a bit of related  trivia: Sly was friends with Day's son, Terry Melcher, who was a record producer. Sly met Day once while visiting Terry at their Beverly Hills home. Sly began playing a gospel version "Que Sera, Sera" on their piano, and Day joined in to duet with the funk legend for a few verses. Too bad no one had a tape recorder around. There were also rumors that the two dated for a time, but those rumors turned out to be false. The two would have definitely made an interesting couple.

Listen to it here

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"Georgia On My Mind" (1960) - Ray Charles [original by Hoagy Carmichael & his Orchestra, with Bix Beiderbecke released in 1930]

Ray Charles' majestic cover of "Georgia On My Mind" has become the quintessential version of this classic song. Charles' powerful vocal performance will move even the most jaded souls. The cover was very well-received upon its released in 1960 and shot to number one on the Billboard Top 100 chart. The song also earned Charles two Grammys. Willie Nelson also released a top-notch rendition of the song in 1978 and put his own personal touch on the track. "Georgia On My Mind" was designated Georgia's official state song in 1979.

Listen to it here

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"Respect" (1967) - Aretha Franklin [original by Otis Redding released in 1965]

Aretha Franklin took Otis Redding's song about a man asking for respect from his woman and turned it on its head, transforming it into an epic feminist anthem. The power of Aretha's cover was so undeniable that even Otis had to concede that his version had been usurped by the Queen of Soul. The late soul giant famously said, "That little gal done stole my song!" And Otis meant that as the highest of compliments to Aretha for making the song her own and taking it to another level. And I'm not taking anything away Otis' original version, which is also amazing.

Listen to it here

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"Mad World" (2006) - Wise Guys  [original by Tears for Fears released in 1983]

German a cappella band Wise Guys' beautifully elegiac cover of  Tears for Fears' hit "Mad World" will damn near move you to tears. Although Gary Jules' excellent rendition (featured in the film Donnie Darko) is far more popular, I feel that Wise Guys' moving interpretation packs even more emotional power. Their vocals sound amazing here. That reminds me, I need to check out more of their music.

Listen to it here

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"All Along The Watchtower" (1968) -  The Jimi Hendrix Experience [original by Bob Dylan released in 1967]

Jimi Hendrix's blistering overhaul of Bob Dylan's "All Along The Watchtower" is widely considered one of the greatest cover songs of all time. Dylan's plaintive folk-rock original is terrific, but Hendrix's brilliant reworking of the song launched it into the stratosphere. And the song showcases the left-handed virtuoso's incredible, mind-blowing guitar playing. Dylan was so impressed with the cover that he began performing Hendrix's arrangement at his concerts. Hendrix's version of the song was voted  "The Greatest Cover Song of All Time" in a Rolling Stone magazine reader's poll.

Listen to it here

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"I Feel for You" (1984) - Chaka Khan [original by Prince released in 1979]

With her smash hit "I Feel for You," soul/funk diva Chaka Khan transformed a forgotten Prince album track into a rousing club banger in 1984. Chaka injected a shot of adrenaline into the Purple One's song and made it her own, scoring her biggest hit as a solo artist in the process. The original version of the song was featured on Prince's self-titled second album and is quite good. Chaka's remake features a great rap from Melle Mel, who was a member of influential rap group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And Stevie Wonder contributes a cracking harmonica solo. The song also samples some of Stevie's vocals from his 1963 hit "Fingertips." Chaka delivered an amazing vocal performance on this song and let everyone know that she was still a forced to be reckoned with in the '80s.

Listen to it here

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"Hallelujah" - Jeff Buckley  1994 [original by Leonard Cohen released in 1984]

The late singer/songwriter/guitarist's exquisite interpretation of Leonard Cohen's song is filled with beauty, sadness, wistfulness and hope. It's just an amazing rendition of an already powerful song. Buckley's tragic death at the age of 30 from drowning makes the cover even more poignant. It's comparable to Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay," which was released shortly after his untimely death in a plane crash. Both songs are sad but beautiful remembrances of two extremely gifted artists whose lives were cut short in their prime.

Listen to it here

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