Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dez's Top 50 Movies, #'s 50-46 and Introductory Comments

OK, more lists. All of life can be reduced to a good, well put together list. I'm going to give you my favorite 50 flicks in list form at about 5 per week. As much as I do love movies, I am not quite the expert in this arena as I am in music. But I'd like to think I've got good taste and I know enough. The purpose of these lists is twofold: first, I hope they inspire some discussion, be it agreement or disagreement. That is what makes these things fun for me. You won't hurt my feelings, because I know I'm smarter than you. =) Secondly, I do hope that some of these picks inspire you to check them out. Many a movie on this list came from close friends suggesting to me that I see them.

This is NOT a definitive, AFI-type list of the most important or classic films. Some of these picks do overlap with that type of inquiry, but that is purely coincidental. If I wanted to look intellectual or be overtly artsy fartsy, I could definitely construct such a list and fill it with obscure Japanese and French films to impress my readers. These are films that have struck a chord with me over the years. The criteria used here was simple: if I'm sitting on my couch with an afternoon to kill and flipping channels, which movies are most likely going to make me stop flipping channels and shout out "alight!"...even if I've seen them 50 times already. Anyway, more observations in later installments. I challenge JMW and ANCIANT to post their own lists on their own blogs (and anyone else, for that matter). I'm always looking for more great suggestions from people I semi-respect...

50. Tyler Perry's...

Just kidding. Here we go.

50. Wages of Fear (Fr)(La Salaire De La Peur) (1953), dir. Henri Georges-Clouzot

The plot is simple: an oil company pays four desperate men to drive an extremely volatile cargo of nitroglycerin across 300 miles of dangerous Central American terrain. The film has a slow start, but once the men actually depart on their trip, almost every moment is filled with tension. Imagine driving an old battered truck full of dangerous explosives that could blow you to smithereens with each bump in the road. Clouzot directed several masterful sequences, especially the famous scene where the men try to maneuver their trucks around on a crumbling bridge over a mountain gorge. The film has some political subtext that is fairly obvious, but it should be enjoyed primarily as a top notch thriller. Thanks to ANCIANT for suggesting this one to me a few years back.

49. Rear Window (1954), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock gave us an innovative twist for the time when he made the hero of the film an invalid. James Stewart’s cynical but resourceful L.B. Jeffries is clearly a man of action under normal circumstances, but throughout RW he is confined to a wheelchair recovering from an accident. Jeffries passes the time by spying on his neighbors through his apartment window which overlooks the backside of an adjoining apartment building. Over several evenings, he sees and hears suspicious goings on in a particular apartment and begins to suspect one of his neighbors (a creepy and imposing Raymond Burr) of murder. Hitchcock is a master of detail here, and he wraps the viewer up in the lives of several of Jeffries’ neighbors, not just the possibly homicidal Burr. The only unbelievable part of the film? No presumably heterosexual man would play hard to get like the grumpy Jeffries does when the radiant Grace Kelly is practically begging him to marry her.

ABOVE: Is Jimmy Stewart's L.B. Jeffries a homosexual? That is the only explanation I can think of as to why he resists Grace Kelly's attempts to seduce him through most of Rear Window

48. The Shawshank Redemption (1994), dir. Frank Darabont

I was a latecomer to the Shawshank party. Many of my friends declared it an instant classic, but I was a bit more cautious. Turns out they were right. I recall having a heated discussion with my friend Johannes regarding whether Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) or Red (Morgan Freeman) was the main character of the film. It is a rich film full of ideas and themes over which you can have such heated discussions.

47. No Man’s Land (2001) (Bosnia), dir. Danis Tanovic

A wonderfully dark comedy/drama that takes place during the Bosnian conflict of the 1990’s and winner of 2001's Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It is the deceptively simple story of a Bosniak soldier and Bosnian Serb soldier who get trapped together between enemy lines and are forced to come to an uneasy truce in order to survive. The film’s most biting satire is saved for the inept United Nations peacekeepers. If you missed this one, I highly recommend you check it out.

ABOVE: The UN as effective as ever

46. The Blues Brothers (1980), dir. John Landis

I’m usually not a fan of musicals, but when a musical features exuberant performances from Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Cab Calloway…I’ll make an exception. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s genuine affection and respect for blues and soul music shines through in every scene, and they buy into the ridiculousness of their characters so completely that we can’t help but go along for the ride. Plus, there are many funny moments in this film that have helped to make it a classic. “What kind of music do you play here?” “Oh, we play both kinds. Country and western.”

ABOVE: I’d go to this church with the Rev. James Brown presiding (or, Rev. Cleofus James in the film). “I don’t want to go hear no jive-ass preacher talking to me about heaven and hell.” “Jake, you get wise! You get to church!”

Friday, June 26, 2009

RIP Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

You kinda wish Michael would have followed his own advice in "Off the Wall": "When the world is on your shoulder / You gotta straighten up your act and boogie down." But he wrote and sang that line a long time ago.

When I heard about Michael Jackson's death yesterday, I was a little surprised at my own rather strong emotions. I stopped following his music by the time Bad was released in 1987, so it is not like I was waiting for his next masterpiece or anything. Yet Thriller is so undeniable, as much a part of my culture growing up as Star Wars figures, an MTV that showed music videos and Ronald Reagan, I had to stop and contemplate his passing for some time. Fortunately, thanks to the wall to wall media coverage, I had lots of help.

I could tell some of the media talking heads were feeling the same thing. Sheppard Smith on Fox News held court for some time talking about Michael Jackson. As he was waiting for the Fox interns to scramble together some organized reporting, Smith says "now, this is just off the top of my head, but..." and he proceeded to recount Jackson's entire career and history in great detail, hitting every milestone. Any person within a certain age range could have done likewise. Sheppard couldn't help himself, he then had to talk about his own Jackson memories, such as the Jackson posters and red jacket that he begged his parents to buy him and how many times a day he listened to Thriller as a kid, etc. Over at CNN, Anderson Cooper got lost in his own memories of meeting Jackson when Anderson was 10 years old. Perhaps it is appropriate that each of these reporters focus on childhood memories.

The Michael Jackson story, of course, is really two quite separate stories. The first is the remarkable musician and performer. In that respect, yesterday's loss was akin to the loss of John Lennon or Elvis Presley. (Some parallels too, in the sense that when Elvis died, he wasn't exactly at the top of his game either; and John Lennon was about to embark on a comeback attempt after a long exile). It is a cliche, but in this case it is true: We will never see the likes of Jackson again. He revolutionized performing and dancing, he revolutionized music, he revolutionized the music business (in fact, reset the rules of the game entirely), he revolutionized pop culture. Any one of these accomplishments would have made him a superstar, but all of these accomplishments combined made him beyond a mere pop icon. Simply, he was Michael Jackson. Think about that. In dancing and choreography, in music, in the entertainment industry, in pop culture...all of those industries were fundamentally changed, not merely effected, by Michael Jackson.

You want the facts?

* Jackson in his prime could do it all. Songwriter, producer, singer, dancer, business man (don't forget that he controversially bought the rights to the Beatles catalogue from under an enraged Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono. Paul and Michael were friends in the early 80's [remember "The Girl Is Mine" and "say Say Say"?], but McCartney hated Jackson after the Beatles catalogue fiasco)
* 14 #1 hit songs on the U.S. Billboard 100
* Thriller. The highest selling non-compilation album in history; stayed at the #1 spot for 37 weeks; stayed in the Top 10 for a year and a half; seven Top 10 singles from the album (a feat only matched by sister Janet Jackson and Bruce Springsteen)
* When Jackson appeared on the Motown 25th anniversary special in 1983 and debuted his moonwalk, it was a musical/television event for that generation that was akin to The Beatles or Elvis appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show for the previous generation
* Bad didn't do so bad either. Five #1 hits (the only artist ever to have five number ones from the same album); stayed in the top five of the Billboard 200 for 38 weeks, longer than any record in history
* 37 Top 40 hits overall
* Jackson's video for "Billie Jean" was the first video by a black artist that was played a substantial amount on the previously all white MTV. Crossover? Jackson arguably completed (notice I said completed, not started) the bridge between black and white music

So far I've only talked about his solo career. He had already "completed" a hugely successful career as the face of the Jackson 5 (later, The Jacksons) before the age of 30 or any of the accomplishments listed above.

I promised two stories. The other story has nothing to do with music. That is a story of a sick, sad, crazy, lonely person who may or may not have committed horrible crimes and who became a media sideshow. You know that story, and that is not what I want to remember or honor this morning. You cannot deny that it happened (and shouldn't), but that just is not what I want to commemorate now. Because no matter what happened post-1987, Michael Jackson changed history and contributed a very positive force to the world before that turning point.

ABOVE: History made. Michael Jackson performs his greatest song, "Billie Jean," at the 25th Anniversary of Motown celebration in 1983. The first moonwalk ever is at about 3:43.

RIP Michael Jackson.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Uh, Dumbass

You know, having an affair with a hot Argentinian women...well, OK. But taking off for a week when you are governor of a state and not telling anyone where you are going? And this guy was supposed to be one of the great hopes to lead the Republican Party out from the wilderness. Keep looking.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dez's Top 10 Blues Albums

Longtime GNABB readers will recall my epic Top 100 Rock/Pop Albums list that I presented, ten at a time, over several months. Time for another list. I will deliver a movies list sometime in the near future, but in the meantime here's a quick list covering blues albums.

The rules on this one are a little different from the big Rock/Pop list. Recall that I prohibited compilations on that one, since the majority of the rock era coincided with the album era. Much of the great blues music, on the other hand, predated the album era. During much of its heyday, blues was a music distributed primarily through singles. Had Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf been recording their best material in the 70's vs. the 40's and 50's, they would have released some killer records, to be sure. So, when considering blues music, you've got to allow compilations. But whenever possible, such as with artists who were recording primarily in the album era, I tried to favor an album over a compilation.

10. Lightnin' Hopkins - Lightnin', 1960
Hopkins was a blues master who was there near the beginning. But it was during the blues/folk explosion of the 50's and 60's when he was one of those fortunate aging blues artists who was "rediscovered" and experienced his greatest success late in life. This record is a fantastic acoustic blues trio record from one of the true masters of acoustic blues. And he's a Houston native, so I've gotta love a hometown hero. I was introduced to this one early as it was in my Dad's LP collection that I have since confiscated. Features a definitive reading of one of his great signature tunes, "Back To New Orleans" (although he did not write it, "BTNO" is most closely associated with Hopkins.)

9. Mississippi John Hurt - Avalon Blues: The Complete Okeh Recordings, 1928 (compilation)
That's right, 1928. Hurt was a contemporary of Hopkins, and he was likewise rediscovered during the blues/folk boom of the '50s and '60s. This scant disc of 13 tracks is the complete record of his recordings in his prime as a young man. The only other recordings available from Hurt are from 30 years later during his rediscovery. He toiled as an unknown most of his life, made these recordings, and then put down the guitar for decades to work in the cotton fields of the south. This is solo acoustic folk blues at its very best. What gets me is the intricacy and complexity of the playing. It is not as basic or as haunting as the more celebrated Robert Johnson, but I find it much more beautiful and interesting. "Stack 'O Lee" is the highlight.

ABOVE: "Stack 'O Lee". Beautiful.

8. Charlie Musselwhite - The Harmonica According To Charlie Musselwhite, 1978
Musselwhite is acknowledged as one of the harp masters, and this record is interesting because it was recorded as an "instructional" record for aspiring harp players. Therefore he purposely recorded a wide variety of styles here; all masterfully. Favorites include a gorgeous latin tune called "Azul Para Amparo" and an infectious, bouncy version of Ray Charles' classic "Hard Times."

7. Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble - Couldn't Stand the Weather, 1984

Yeah, Texas Flood is more important and more a purist blues record; and In Step was a triumphant crossover smash for Vaughan and blues music in general. But if I could only keep one SRV record, it would be #7. "Scuttle Buttin'" charges through the speakers from its first dizzying flurry of notes, creating an instrumental classic that aspiring guitar slingers will try (and fail) to master for decades to come. The title track is quite simply the best rock/blues hybrid song I've ever come across. "Cold Shot" is a humorous tune that plays with blues cliches wonderfully, and is probably his best overall song. Vaughan fearlessly storms through Hendrix's sacred "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)"; but also reminds us why he was one of the greatest blues artists of any era with his blistering cover of "Things I Used To Do."

ABOVE: SRV and band tearing it up on "Couldn't Stand the Weather"

6. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band - East-West, 1966
Although its most celebrated line-up only recorded two studio records, both are blues classics. In a band that broke ground in several areas (including being one of the first interracial bands in blues and rock) that was spilling over with talented musicians, doomed blues guitar prodigy Michael Bloomfield was the true genius of the group. The record is full of hard hitting blues delivered with rock and roll energy, but the title track is why the record makes my list. Clocking in at about 14 minutes, "East-West" was aptly named, a hypnotic, remarkable jam that combines Western musical structure and energy with Eastern tones and scales. Bloomfield's extended solo is a stunning bridge between east and west (Elvin Bishop takes the straightforward opening guitar solo; Bloomfield comes in after Paul Butterfield's harp solo when the song really goes into overdrive).

5. Howlin' Wolf - His Best, vol. 1 & 2, recorded throughout the 1940's-1960's (compilation)
These two discs cover Wolf's greatest recordings on the Chess label. I already talked about Wolf in my Chess Records post, so I don't need to repeat all of that here. Suffice it to say that Wolf possessed my favorite blues voice ever. A force of nature. Sandpaper doused with gasoline being run over by a locomotive.

4. John Lee Hooker - The Hook: 20 years of Hot Hits and Boogie, recorded during the 1950's (compilation)
There are dozens of Hooker compilations out there, but I always gravitate back to this one. Hooker was notorious for jumping from label to label, but for most of the 1950's he recorded for the Vee-Jay label in Chicago, and this is a compilation of those recordings. He would often re-record his biggest hits for each new label, but I love these crisp yet raw recordings from the 50's the best. Part of the reason is that he's got a great band with him. Hooker was most famous for his boogie playing on guitar; a rhythm so pure and so instinctual that it cannot be taught. He delivers perfect versions of "Dimples," "Boom Boom," "Whiskey & Women," and of course, "Boogie Chillun" (which he famously recorded in a toilet stall to get the echo sound just right and with a microphone placed at his feet so he could stomp his percussion...a one man band). Special mention for "House Rent Boogie," a hilarious talking blues of lowdown relatives and heartless landladies.

3. Muddy Waters - His Best, vol. 1 & 2, recorded throughout the 1940's-1970's (compilation)
Muddy was arguably Chess Records' most valuable commodity (although it is hard to argue against Chuck Berry). Muddy had everything: he was a great songwriter, great guitar player, consummate performer with class and style but who could still get lowdown and dirty, and mythic personality. It was Muddy who popularized and perfected the brilliant idea of electrifying the blues. Chicago electric blues was born, as well as one of the most important grandfather sounds of rock and roll. From the raw "Rollin' Stone" to the boastful "I'm a Man" to the sexually charged "Got My Mojo Workin'" and "You Need Love," Muddy was electric blues at its best.

2. Various Artists - Best of Chess Records, vol. 1 & 2, recorded throughout the 1940's-1960's (compilation)
Again, if you want to know about Chess Records, check out this link. There are several excellent Chess compilations available, but these two discs (that are now out of print) hold a special place in my heart because they were my first exposure to Chess blues. I bought them back in the late 1980's, and they remain staples in my collection to this day. Here is where I first discovered Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Etta James, Little Milton, Koko Taylor...

1. The Robert Cray Band - Strong Persuader, 1986

This is what modern blues music should do. It is true to its roots, but not held back by them. Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan were the blues heroes of the 1980's, leading the modern blues renaissance. (It is rare that a blues artist makes the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, but that is what Cray did in 1986). Cray is as much soul artist as he is blues; more the smooth heir of B.B. King and Otis Redding than Muddy or Wolf. Cray and songwriting partner Dennis Walker wrote a batch of songs that stay true to blues themes (every song here is either of the she-done-me-wrong variety or I-done-her-wrong); but they are all witty, modern, humorous and catchy as hell. Cray has a fantastic band, and then he hits us with his potent one-two punch of soulful singing and near perfect guitar playing. Every song here is good, but the highlights are the thrilling hit "Smoking Gun" and "Right Next Door (Because of Me)".

ABOVE: The Robert Cray Band performing "Smoking Gun" in 1987. Unfortunately, the video was edited to fit three minutes (it was for TV in Holland), so his guitar solo gets chopped up a bit, but the video has great sound quality

Thursday, June 18, 2009

It's Good To Be a Texan

I just heard on the radio (and read online) about a remarkable study by the Brookings Institute. The Institute ranked the major and medium-sized cities in the nation as far as how well they are performing economically in our current recession. Five of the top six were Texas cities. My current abode San Antonio was the #1 city in the United States as far as economic performance. #3 was Austin, #4 was Houston, #5 was Dallas and #6 was McAllen (a city down near the Texas/Mexico border). (Oh, #2 was Oklahoma City). While we have felt some effects of the recession, I have to say that it has been pretty mild down here. Texas' unemployment rate is 2-4% lower than that of the rest of the nation.

So, why does Texas perform so well? I think it is a mix of factors. First of all, we have a fairly conservative state government (Texas actually turned down some stimulus money because we didn't like the strings that were attached). Texas is one of four states that has no income tax. Therefore, our state's financial well being is not nearly as tied to fluctuating employment as other states. The cost of living down here is nice. We have a pretty balanced economy in this state, lots of energy, government work, as well as having a very pro-business environment. Our border with Mexico helps; NAFTA has probably benefited Texas more than any other state. Liberals could learn a lot from a well run, fiscally conservative state, but they probably won't.

ABOVE: Dez lives in San Antonio, the highest economically performing city in the nation

San Antonio is sort of a perfect microcosm of why the state as a whole is doing so well. SA has a great mix of government work and private sector. Lots of military, but the city also does a fantastic job of bringing in businesses. I was listening to a radio interview with Judge Nelson Wolff (a former mayor of SA and now a county judge), and he explained why San Antonio was so successful and why places like California will never learn their lesson. But the best part of the interview? Wolff was on the phone from Las Vegas, where he just busted out of an Omaha tournament. "I played like a donkey," he said. At least half of the interview was about his poker playing prowess (or lack thereof), even though he was supposed to be calling in to discuss this study.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Snow Cone + Summer = Dez Hall of Fame (pt. III)

All you need is a hot day, some shaved ice and flavored syrup, and you've got paradise. Summer is officially here when you start seeing the Snow Cone stands opening up.

The Snow Cone (or Snowball if you live in New Orleans, or Hawaiian shaved ice, or the "raspa" if you live in South Texas) are all variations on this classic treat. The first Snow Cones date back to before Christ in the days of the Roman Empire, when snow was brought down from the mountains into the cities of the Empire and syrups were added to create what may have been history's first dessert. They became popular in their present form in either Texas or New Orleans, depending on which claim you believe, in the early 1920's.

As many snow cone experts know, much depends on the consistency of the ice. I personally prefer the ice as finely ground or shaved as possible, almost to a snow powder. There are also as many different flavors and flavor combinations as your imagination can handle. Yes, the old standbys of grape, cherry, strawberry and orange are still popular, but I've come across snow cone stands with upwards of 40 flavors to choose from.

ABOVE: The signature feature of Hawaiian shaved ice is the rainbow of flavor mixtures

As a resident of the South Texas region, I have come to know snow cones as the "raspa" ("raspar" is the Spanish verb for "to scrape"). In addition to your usual snow cone flavors, there are also some culturally unique flavor combinations popular in these parts. I am a big fan of the "Leche" flavor, which is sweetened milk with a lot of cinnamon. So good. "Tiger's Blood" is also popular in South Texas, which is usually cherry (but sometimes strawberry) mixed with coconut. Now, some popular raspa flavors that I do not particularly enjoy include "Picocito", which is lemon with chili powder and "Chamoy," which is a more general term for a variety of fruit flavors mixed with a chili sauce.

A last word of advice: when you are given a choice within each flavor, always go blue. I'll give three examples. If you are at a well stocked snow cone stand, they will have two varieties of coconut; "coconut" (a clear syrup) and "blue coconut" (which, as you might imagine, is blue). Also, there is often "pink bubblegum" and "blue bubblegum". Also, you may have the choice between "raspberry" and "blue raspberry" (as I had yesterday). In all cases, the blue variety is the deeper, richer flavor.

ABOVE: Snow cones are delicious

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lakers win

As I predicted from the beginning, the Lakers won the NBA championship. Phil Jackson got his record 10th NBA championship, and Kobe has his 4th (and first Shaq-less one). So congrats to the Lakers. In typical L.A. fashion, it seems that the city of Los Angeles celebrated with some minor riots, property damage and arrests.

I think they have a good chance of winning a couple more with Kobe before it is all said and done. As much as many people dislike Kobe (I guess I'm one of those people), I have been impressed with him this playoff run. He worked with his teammates when needed, but also took over when the rest of his team wasn't delivering the goods. He also seemed to be coaching the team on the sidelines as much as Jackson at times. He definitely had the desire to win. The Lakers organization needs to send the GM of the Memphis Grizzles a nice thank you gift in gratitude for the trading of Pau Gasol in exchange for the janitor at the Staples Center.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Final Mix

I don't mean to be morbid, so I apologize ahead of time if this post offends anyone. Today I was cleaning out the closet in my music room (these are the types of projects you do when you are a teacher and summer break starts). I came across an unmarked CD, and put it in the player to see what it was. Once I heard the first tune, I knew immediately. I had been wondering where this disc was!

About a year and a half ago, my aunt committed suicide. She was a sweet woman in her way, but she also had some mental problems (as many suicides do). She was meticulous about details in her life, and so she did not leave much to chance as to her final wishes. She was a big music fan all her life, and we often bonded over talking tunes. (I recall when I was so upset over the death of one of my guitar heroes, Stevie Ray Vaughan, she immediately took me out to the music store and bought me a handful of albums...only another music fan could know that a trip to "church" was the best thing for my spirits that day). She never had kids of her own, so she doted over her nieces and nephews instead.

This disc that I came across today was a mix of tunes that she made in "preparation" and requested be played at her service. (As my mother and uncle were rather devastated by the happenings, the planning and organizing of funeral arrangements fell to me, my sister and my cousin. We made the decision that people would not want to sit around and listen to an entire disc of tunes, so we played it before the service as people arrived as a compromise).

Anyway, being a fellow music fan, I was quite interested in her choices of tunes. About half were religious. This was not surprising, as she was raised catholic and I imagine in her last days she would be thinking about the hereafter. A particularly beautiful rendition of "Ave Maria" has caught my attention today, I've listened to it several times. That really must be one of the most beautiful songs ever written in the history of man. She was especially close to my deceased grandfather (her father), and so she bookended the disc with two painfully innocent songs extolling a father's love for his child. Needless to say relations in my family were somewhat complicated (who's family isn't complicated?), so I had to smile at the purity of these two songs. Almost willfully resurrecting (or creating?) the happiest memories possible from a childhood. What is the second to last tune? For a woman who lived by her own code and went out on her own terms, it could be none other: Sinatra's "My Way." Nice. I can dig that.

That also got me thinking, if I knew ahead of time, what kind of Final Mix would I make? Would I just put my favorite songs on a disc, or would I try to tell some story, try to make some sort of statement? I don't know. These songs weren't thrown together by accident, and by the subject matter she was definitely trying to "explain" through music some important things about her life. None of the songs are the least bit depressing; they are all happy, peaceful or hopeful. I know that she was not happy much of her life, so I think she found a great amount of solace and comfort in the music she chose to listen to. Several of these songs talk about having had some tough times, but then sing with optimism of the days ahead. Interesting. While Bunny (that was her name, she legally changed it to "Bunny" when she was young) and I bonded over a love of music, we definitely came from different generations. All of these tunes on her disc (other than the religious ones) are firmly in the pre-rock & roll days of pop. Think Sinatra and his ilk.

Anyway, I just finished putting the disc on my iTunes under the title Bunny's Final Mix. RIP.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

RIP Koko Taylor, 1929-2009

She may not have been a household name, even among people somewhat familiar with blues music. But true blues aficianados knew Koko Taylor as one of the ballsiest blues belters around. Think of a grittier Etta James.

The daughter of a sharecropper, Taylor worked her way up the blues echelon. Orpaned at age 11, she moved to Chicago and scraped by with menial jobs to survive. When she got older, she started to sing in the Chicago blues club and soon people were taking notice, including Willie Dixon. Dixon helped get her signed to Chess Records, and wrote her biggest hit, "Wang Dang Doodle." Her career spanned over five decades, and she did meet with some mainstream success, earning seven Grammy nominations, as well as being the subject of an excellent PBS documentary. Most of her post-Chess work was done on the great blues label, Alligator Records.

Jay Sieleman, director of the Blues Foundation based in Memphis, said of Koko: "She was still the best female blues singer in the world a month ago. In 1950's Chicago, she was the woman singing the blues. At 80 years old, she was still the Queen of the Blues."

ABOVE: Here's Koko delivering her biggest hit, "Wang Dang Doodle." The clip also features the brilliant Little Walter on harmonica. The audio is a little off sync with the video, but it is still a great clip from the period. (I love the bored looking dude sitting in the foreground at about the 2 minute mark.)

RIP Koko Taylor.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Reign of King Conan Begins

The Tonight Show has been putting us to bed since 1954; the third longest running show in the history of television. While there have been many guest hosts and "transition hosts" in the show's history, it is generally acknowledged that five permanent hosts have held tenure at NBC's most beloved property. Steve Allen (1954-57), Jack Parr (1957-62), Johnny Carson (1962-92), Jay Leno (1992-2009) and, as of last Monday night, Conan O'Brien (2009-present). For me, Johnny Carson was and always will be the King of Late Night TV. That would be an interesting discussion/debate in itself, but I really wanted to discuss Conan's debut.

ABOVE: Nobody will ever top Johnny Carson, the King of Late Night TV

As usual with new hosts, Conan brought his own people in to help him begin his era. Drummer/bandleader Max Weinberg (of E Street fame) came with Conan from his old show to lead the revamped Tonight Show Band. In a move harkening back to the Carson days, Conan brought back old buddy Andy Richter to play his Ed McMahon sidekick, even down to heavily miked laughter at the host's quips. Richter had been on Conan's old show in the early days, but had left several years ago. Conan and Richter have a great rapport, so I hope that Richter stays onboard.

Conan is very funny and smart. In fact, funnier and smarter than Leno ever was, but he also takes some getting used to. His humor is not as accessible as Leno's was, and some of his personal ticks can be annoying even to admirers. I think due to nerves, on his first show, his odd pauses and sudden body gyrations were on full display. He also relied heavily on some pre-recorded skits, most of which worked well (but the Ford Taurus one fell a bit flat). Having Will Ferrell as his first guest was a smart move, as Conan seemed to relax for the first time once Ferrell came out (carried by Egyptian servants on a throne). Ferrell continually made great cracks about the assured failure of Conan's hosting era of The Tonight Show, which in fact relieved some of the tense pressure of earlier in the show. As Conan himself joked: "I have great timing. I'm coming over to a last place network, moving to a bankrupt state, and we are sponsored tonight by General Motors." Musical guest Pearl Jam was also an inspired choice, but they disappointed by playing a pretty lame tune from their forthcoming album. They could have served Conan better in his coming out party by dusting off a familiar chestnut instead.

Overall, Conan did well under the understandable pressure. I look forward to watching him in the years to come. What did you think?

ABOVE: I'm looking forward to seeing what Conan O'Brien can do with The Tonight Show