Every week on Monday, the WoW! community and our invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum, short takes on a major issue of the day, the culture, or daily living. This week’s question concerns music: Who Are Your Favorite Musical Artists Or Composers? Why?
Bookworm Room: I adore the creative geniuses behind The Great American Songbook. Here’s the shortest list possible of just a few of my favorite lyricists, along with some of their most exquisite or clever verses:
Irving Berlin: From the song Lazy:
I want to peep
Through the deep
‘Til I sleep
Like a child would
With a great big valise full
Of books to read where it’s peaceful
Johnny Mercer: From the song I Remember You:
I remember, too, a distant bell
And stars that fell
Like rain, out of the blue.
When my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall
The thrill of them all,
Then I shall tell them
I remember you.
Cole Porter: From the song It’s De-Lovely
This verse you’ve started seems to me
The Tin-Pantithesis of melody,
So spare me, please, the pain
Just skin the damn thing and sing the refrain.
Frank Loesser: From the song They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old, a woman’s promise to her man on the front that she’s being faithful:
I’m either their first breath of spring,
Or else I’m their last little fling.
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup,
I either have to hold him off or have to hold him up.
The battle is on, but the fortress will hold,
They’re either too young or too old.
I’ll stop now. I don’t have a million of ’em, but sometimes it seems close. The art of writing lyrics is dead and gone, but the greats left us so many that we can still enjoy. If, like me, you get a kick out of the talented Tin Pan Alley lyricists, I highly recommend Reading the Lyrics, a collection of more than a thousand popular song lyrics from 1900-1975.
Don Surber: My favorite composer is Israel Isidore Baline, born in Russia on May 11, 1888. All he remembered of Russia was the cossacks burning down their house in the middle of the night. Grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Cherry Street.
We know him as Irving Berlin. From a life of poverty, he became a singing waiter and then a songwriter. We know all the great songs.
He fell in love with a rich WASP, which caused a scandal. Her father sent her to Europe to break it up. The father feared Berlin was after her money (as well as the whole being Jewish thing) but by 30 Berlin already was richer than his eventual father-in-law. While she was gone, Berlin wrote “Always.” When she came back, he assigned her the copyright. Now how do you turn down a guy like that?
So they married and lived happily ever after — until her death 63 years later. (His first wife died of typhoid after 6 months of marriage. His only son died in infancy on December 25, 1928. So he knew hardship.) He died a year later at 101.
He was so good and so prolific we did not need all those other songwriters.
But you want 10. OK.
- Chuck Berry. He invented rock and roll. And he played a guitar like ringing a bell.
- Sinatra. Billboard’s original top list began in 1940 with his recording of “I’ll Never Smile Again” as No. 1 for eight or nine weeks. The Dorsey orchestra and the Pied Pipers make that record one of the all-time best. What a kickoff to a 50-year recording career.
Great story about that song. Young Canadian woman — Ruth Lowe — marries, moves to Chicago, and her husband dies a year later. Heartbroken, she returns to Toronto and lives alone in her apartment until the depression goes away. During that period she perfected her song. And in 1945, she married again and had two sons.
- Herb Alpert. He blended jazz and pop in a fresh fun way. As a record executive, his A&M Records was the essence of pop in the 1960s and 1970s. Burt Bacharach. The Carpenters. Just great music.
- Berry Gordy. I grew up listening to Motown, which made my childhood terrific.
- Elvis. His music was great, but his effect on America transcended music from his controversial swivel hips to being drafted to his tragic death.
- Fred Astaire. You know all those songs Sinatra sang in the 1950s? Astaire debuted them in the 1930s: Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” in Gay Divorce (1932). Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat (1935). The Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in Shall We Dance (1937). Even Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby” was sung by Astaire originally in a 1943 movie. It’s said that his lack of a wide range made the songwriters keep it simple, which allowed singers with wider ranges to improvise and make those songs their own.
- Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. First two songwriters whose names I bothered to know. Wrote half the hits for the Everly Brothers, and “Rocky Top.” You may not think they belong here, but it’s my list, isn’t it?
- Mike Love. Yes, Brian Wilson wrote the music and is a genius and all that. And fellow Beach Boy Bruce Johnston wrote “I Write the Songs” (people think it was Barry Manilow, but it was Bruce Johnston). But Mike Love wrote the best line in any rock song: “I don’t know where but she sends me there.” I was 13 when that song was No. 1. That was me.
- John Philip Sousa. “Stars and Stripes Forever.” For being martial music, it sure was fun.
Michael McDaniel: My students often ask me my favorite book, movie or song. I have to explain I have no single favorites. There are some composers, movies and authors I favor, even collect, but there are so many, so much good art, art that rises far above and beyond mere entertainment, it’s impossible to choose a single favorite that rises above all else.
They often ask me to which music I listen. I explain I don’t commonly listen to music, certainly not as they do, because I’m usually too busy rehearsing and performing music. I do play and sing favorite–and some new–songs for fun and for the occasional performance. I often tell them my favorite is whatever I’m rehearsing and about to perform at the moment, because one must be immersed not only in the rhythms, notes and text, but the music to produce a worthy performance.
Considering I’ve played guitar and bass for musicals, big bands, jazz ensembles, rock bands and country bands, sung for the same, and considering I’m a classically trained tenor, composer, arranger and director, my tastes tend to be eclectic. I once played the cannon–I wrote an appropriate synthesizer patch and played the keyboard/cannon–in a performance of the 1812 Overture. Boom!
So, for what it’s worth, a partial list of the music I’ve found delightful and meaningful over the years:
The Carpenters: Karen Carpenter’s voice was the finest female voice in pop music. Her musical precision, warmth and textual interpretive powers stand out among legions of loud, sloppy, overly hyped divas. Their use of tight, beautiful harmonies, clever instrument turns, the oboe, and Richard Carpenter’s keyboard playing and arranging remain unparalleled. The loss of Karen to Anorexia was a loss to humanity. Which was my favorite? This once only: Merry Christmas Darling.
Jesus Christ Superstar: A controversial work at its introduction, the rock opera endures as a work at once challenging, beautiful, and enormous fun to play. Its message is, of course, incomparable.
Tommy, by The Who: The first rock opera. It’s raw, intense, powerful, inventive, and wildly fun to play.
For the Beauty OF The Earth, by John Rutter: Rutter, who is about to retire, has been a premier choral composer of the previous, and this century. When I returned to college, and music, after many years of police work, this was among the first works I performed. Its text and affecting melody always bring tears to my eyes, and I’ve programmed it at the beginning of June, when I return to Wyoming to direct an adult choir I co-founded three decades ago, for its 30-year reunion concert. I’ve directed and performed many other Rutter works, but this is probably my actual favorite. I can direct, and sing it from memory, so deeply has it imprinted itself on my mind.
Ave Maria, by Franz Biebl: Of all of the beautiful choral works I’ve had the privilege to sing, this never fails to bring out the best in me, and to deeply touch audiences, if the chorus does its part. Hearing it via the Internet can never convey the emotion, depth and sheer beauty hearing it in a good hall, sung by a fine chorus provides. The text is timeless, and the writing, peerless.
Requiem Mass In Dm (K626), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Mozart is arguably the greatest composer mankind has ever produced. Many of his contemporaries, among the greatest composers of all time, shared this opinion. For such a short life, his output was prodigious, and he died before he could finish the Requiem. Fortunately, his pupil, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, finished the work, which endures today, and forever.
From the powerful Dies Irae, to the pastoral Hostias, to the aptly named Lacrymosa, there is nothing like it. I’ve performed the work many times, and will again on April 18.
Messiah, by George Friderich Handel: I’ve performed the work no less than 60 times, and can nearly sing it all from memory. I’ve directed it, sung the tenor solos, and mostly, sung in the choir. Each of those roles has been no less rewarding. As with the Requiem, there is nothing like it, and it will be performed as long as humanity endures. Virtually everyone recognizes the Hallelujah chorus, but they’ve heard much, much more of the work. I also favor He Trusted In God, and the glorious, Worthy Is The Lamb, with its powerful and soaring Amen, which is often programmed as the closing chorus of performances. I sing it from two-three times each year at the Christmas season, which has become the traditional performance season, and I eagerly anticipate it every year. Unlike me, it never grows old.
Because I am also a guitarist, I appreciate the work of guitar composers, and have always played the works of Gordon Lightfoot, Jim Croce, James Taylor, and to a lesser degree, Paul Simon, John Denver, and a variety of other acts that rely heavily on the guitar, particularly the acoustic guitar.
As I said: eclectic.
Scott KIrwin: Music is an intensely personal thing. The music that moves one person to tears may bore another. We still really don’t understand music, what it is and why we like it so much.
Since I was a kid I’ve always liked electronic music. Growing up in the late 1970s this meant that I gravitated towards the unique sounds of New Wave bands that used synthesizers such as Devo, the Cars, and Gary Numan. In the mid-1980s I lived briefly in Chicago which was at the time undergoing a musical revolution with the creation of House Music, made popular in the local clubs and spread by radio station WBMX. After leaving Chicago I got deeply into other musical genres, and House Music went on its merry way.
The style of music eventually found its way to (of all places) Goa, India in the late 1980s where a couple of European expat DJs took the sound, mixed it with European techno, added a dose of Indian music and the result was Goa Trance music (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goa_trance) As its name implies trance music is music that uses repetition and melody to provide the listener with a hypnotic beat and encourage a trance-like state. In the 1990s Goa Trance evolved and mixed with other styles of electronic music: techno, house, progressive house, trance, deep trance among others.
I discovered trance music in the early 2000s. I stream it throughout the day while I work. I listen to it in the car. It has become the soundtrack of my life. At 130-140 beats per minute the music is the perfect wake-up music in the morning. But for some reason the opposite is also true. The same BPM range can easily relax me and put me to sleep if I let it. For some reason the music just works for me.
John Fleming aka “John 00 Fleming” is a DJ, musician, and producer who travels the world putting on shows and promoting trance music. His style of music is deep trance with dark overtones. His tracks have heavy bass, minimal vocals, and avoid the speeding up and slowing down of rhythm popular with techno DJs like Tiesto which I find annoying. The beat is constant and lasts for hours. He produces a monthly podcast, Global Trance Grooves, which showcases the genre.
(check it out here http://www.john00fleming.com/podcast/).
Fausta Rodríguez Wertz :Years ago I went to the Montgomery Cinema (Princeton-area’s artsy-farsty movie theater) by myself to see Tous les matins du monde, a biopic about French composer Marin Marais (1656-1728). It’s a beautiful movie about a tragic love story, with Gerard Depardieu playing the old Marais and Depardieu’s real-life son, Guillaume – who also met a tragic end – playing the young Marais.
I had always enjoyed Baroque music, but this scene, where Guillaume Depardieu plays the Folies d’Espagne on the viola de gamba, was a revelation.
I had to find more!
It was 1991, in the olden days before Google, so I sat through the credits and wrote down the musician’s name, Jordi Savall, after which I headed to the Princeton U-Store (which back then had an excellent music department, curated by a professor from the Westminster Conservatory) and bought the movie soundtrack.
After that, I have spent thousands of hours listening to Early and Baroque music, in person, on CDs, iPod and YouTube, at every opportunity.
The effect of viola de gamba music on me is like that of catnip on a cat. Apparently I am not alone, since Savall himself, when he was a young cellist in his teens, heard an old neighbor play it, and dedicated his life to the research, interpretation and teaching of the art.
His research has defined the art. When he first started learning gamba nearly nobody played it. He essentially taught himself while taking lessons on phrasing and other aspects of interpretation from master cellists. Until he could play an authentic, original gamba, he found someone who could build him one. He still spends countless hours at the French national archives researching original folios from the court of Louis XIII to add to the repertoire.
Savall’s work first was sponsored by a fellowship from the Fundación Juan March, but he has since created a family business. His late wife Monserrat Figueras sang, both his children play in his orchestra. He owns his recording label and is an impresario. Additionally, he is a professor of viola da gamba at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, when he succeeded his mentor, August Menzinger – his teacher in Switzerland when he and Ms Figueras moved to following the Juan March fellowship.
Savall narrates (in Spanish) his career in this video.
I started with the video of the Folies D’Espagne from the film. Here is a concert version of the piece, with Savall on gamba, and his daughter playing the harp,
You can listen to the full piece here,
No matter how many times I’ve listened to that piece, it always knocks my socks off.
Doug Hagin: Well, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, have so many wonderful creations. Hard to choose. I love Vanessa Mae’s work from a few years ago, she was talented and very attractive.
Music is a wonderful art form. At Christmas time, you can have Perry Como, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby etc. Sorry but I prefer listening to my neighbors Chevy rust. Give me Trans Siberian Orchestra. Hard rock and classical together? Awesome! Incredible talent there.
My favorite musicians? Eric Clapton, the late Gary Moore, the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, Buddy Guy, and so many other great guitarists. Love the Blues, and what is now called classic rock. It does not get better than Seger or the Eagles. I also love Simon and Garfunkel, swing music, some country. My rule is if it moves me, it moves me.
Dave Schuler: That’s a hard question to answer. I have pretty eclectic tastes, ranging from opera to jazz to Broadway musicals to rhythm and blues to Gabby Pahinui’s slack-key guitar. In opera I like Wagner and Puccini. In jazz I like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Miles Davis. In the music from Broadway musicals it’s hard to beat Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hart.
However, I’ll choose to answer a question that wasn’t asked and highlight a few of my favorite songs.
First, R&B. I love Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come. I think it’s one of the greatest songs of the 20th century. Don’t watch the video it’s attached to. That’s awful. Just minimize it and listen to the words and music. It tears me up every time.
From the Great American Songbook two songs with a somewhat similar theme that I just love are Rodgers and Hart’s Where or When from Babes in Arms, sung here by Barbara Cooke and Long Before I Knew You from Bells Are Ringing, sung by Sydney Chaplin and the wonderful Judy Holliday.
I’ll wind up with Irving Berlin’s charming Always, written as a wedding gift for his wife, Ellin, and sung here by Ella Fitzgerald. Nobody had the ability to express simple emotions in a simple way like Irving Berlin.
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