This week we’ll be turning to one of greatest cities in the world and listing the best artists its ever produced. Why? Because if you can make it there…
New York. I have no sense of melodrama or irony when I say that it is the greatest city in the world. It’s overlysimplistic to say that all Americans can be divided into California People and New York People. But, if it could be done, I’d be a New York guy in a heartbeat. Forget any of that crap about saying you like ‘seasons’. The world is just better with a little grime. Everyday is more interesting when you have absolutely no idea what you’re going to run into. It’s a bit like living in a video game. Well, except you can actually die for being stupid. Of course, every real city has it’s own level of excitement. But there is absolutely nothing in America that compares to the evolving urban sprawl of New York. There, it isn’t just about white/black, rich/poor, or dangerous/safe. Entire neighborhoods can disappear in a day. There is a constantly swirling fluctation of ethnicities, population densities, storefronts, and even entire buildings that earns the city the tag ‘sea of humanity’.
It’s amongst this environment that some of the greatest American art (and particularly music) has been created. You’ve seen me go on before about the importance that environment has on art. I think there is a romantic idea of people making songs about their hometowns or ‘painting a picture’ of a particular city. To me, the truth actually lies in how the hometown or the city shapes that art and the individual creating it. The music of New Yorkers has a particular sound not because the artists are talking about New York, but because the entire environment of that city is shaping reality as they see it (and, hence, how they represent it). What is particularly interesting about New York however is the way in which it not only has it’s own feeling and attitude, but how that attitude is continually present in almost every significant musical movement of the modern age. If there is a genre you know of, a New Yorker has helped define it. Just think for a second about Jazz, Hip-Hop, Punk Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Folk, New Wave, Hardcore, Thrash, Singer-Songwriters, and even your favorite ‘bedroom project’. Now, take the New Yorkers out of it. Yeah, it’s that bad.
So, I knew I wanted to celebrate the music of New York this week, but I wasn’t exactly sure how. Sure, I could just list off the best ten artists who happen to come from New York, but that seems a little easy. I could name the top ten songs about New York, but that’s a little boring. Then it hits me. Why not mix the two and list the top ten artists ‘about’ New York. Bare with me a little. I’m talking about the artists that weren’t just great, but were also undeniable New Yorkers. The city itself was an integral part of their sound. These are the artists you reach for when you are heading down into the subway in Brooklyn or walking down 14th Street in Manhattan. Sure, Bob Dylan started out in New York, but he spent more time writing songs about getting out of the city than sticking around. Now Joey Ramone? That guy was from New York. I remember seeing an interview with Francis Ford Coppola talking about fighting to cast Al Pacino as Michael Corleone because he had the ‘mark of Sicily.’ That’s what I’m saying here. These groups have the mark of New York, and we’re all better off for it.
Loudon Wainwright III
De La Soul
A Tribe Called Quest
TV on the Radio
a notable exclusion.
I’m taking him out. I don’t care if it’s sacrilege. I can stand to listen to Frank Sinatra once, maybe twice, a year. Even then, there had better be a mob movie on TV. I just can’t handle most of this heavy symphony, velvety smooth, greaseball ballad stuff. That’s my grandparents’ music and I don’t get it. Even at his most jazz-influenced, I’d still rather hear Nina Simone or Sarah Vaughn. I’m sorry. The Chairman of the Board is out. All of his Rat Pack buddies too. I know it sounds ridiculous that a guy who spends most of his time spouting slobber on groups you’ve never heard of would run down one of the most beloved American musicians ever. Frank just hasn’t ever really connected with me. I certainly can’t deny this guy WAS New York City. I also have to admit that he was pretty fantastic in The Manchurian Candidate.
10. Talking Heads
I’ve often claimed that Talking Heads are the ‘Great American Band’. Hell, I devoted an entire column to them. So, why would they only place number ten on this list? Let’s get to that later. David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth were alumni of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island. There Byrne and Frantz formed a band called “The Artistics” in 1974. Weymouth was Frantz’s girlfriend and often provided the band with transportation. The Artistics dissolved within a year, and the three moved to New York, eventually sharing a communal loft. Unable to find a bass player in New York City, Frantz encouraged Weymouth to learn to play bass by listening to Suzi Quatro albums. They played their first gig as “Talking Heads” opening for the Ramones at CBGB on June 20, 1975. In a later interview, Weymouth recalled how the group chose the name Talking Heads: “A friend had found the name in the TV Guide, which explained the term used by TV studios to describe a head-and-shoulder shot of a person talking as ‘all content, no action.’ It fit.”
Later in 1975, the trio recorded a series of demos for CBS, but the band was not signed to the label. They quickly drew a following and were signed to Sire Records in 1977. The group released their first single, “Love → Building on Fire” in February of that year. In March 1977, they added Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboards, vocals), formerly of Jonathan Richman’s band The Modern Lovers. This would be the lineup that we acknowledge today as The Talking Heads. Though the Talking Heads would reach the height of their commercial success MTV support of singles like “Once In A Lifetime” and “And She Was”, rock critics and music revisionists will always celebrate the band’s earliest material as a key ingredient of the changing musical landscape of the late 1970’s. Breaking out of the same scene as Blondie, The Ramones, and Television, the Talking Heads became a poster child of the new wave movement coming out of New York’s CBGB’s.
After eight studio albums and two live albums (all brilliant, I would argue), the Talking Heads called it quits in 1991 (poetically enough, just at the dawn of another great shift change in American music). Despite David Byrne’s lack of interest in another album, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison reunited for a one-off album called No Talking, Just Head under the name The Heads in 1996. The album featured a number of vocalists including Debbie Harry of Blondie, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, Andy Partridge of XTC, Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes, Michael Hutchence of INXS, Ed Kowalczyk of Live, Shaun Ryder of Happy Mondays, Richard Hell, and Maria McKee. The album was accompanied by a tour which featured Johnette Napolitano as the vocalist. Byrne took legal action against the rest of the band to prevent them using the name “Talking Heads”, something he saw as “a pretty obvious attempt to cash in on the Talking Heads name.” They opted to record and tour as “The Heads”. Likewise, Byrne continues his solo career.
Meanwhile, Harrison became a record producer of some note – his résumé includes the Violent Femmes’ The Blind Leading the Naked, the Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw and the Cooked, General Public’s Rub It Better, Crash Test Dummies’ God Shuffled His Feet, Live’s Throwing Copper, No Doubt’s song “New” from Return of Saturn, and most recently work by The Black and White Years and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Frantz and Weymouth, who were married in 1977, had been recording on the side as Tom Tom Club since 1981. Tom Tom Club’s self-titled debut album sold almost as well as Talking Heads themselves, leading to the band appearing in Stop Making Sense. They achieved several pop/rap hits during the dance-club cultural boom era of the early 1980s, particularly in the UK, where they still enjoy a strong fan following today. Their best-known single, “Genius of Love”, has been sampled numerous times, notably on old school hip hop classic “It’s Nasty (Genius of Love)” by Grandmaster Flash and on Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit “Fantasy”. They also have produced several artists, including Happy Mondays and Ziggy Marley. The Tom Tom Club continue to record and tour intermittently, although commercial releases have become sporadic since 1991. Though the original lineup did reunite for their 2002 induction into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, there is little hope of anything more long term. David Byrne states: “We did have a lot of bad blood go down. That’s one reason, and another is that musically we’re just miles apart.” Weymouth, however, has been critical of Byrne, describing him as “a man incapable of returning friendship” and that he doesn’t “love” her, Frantz, and Harrison.
I could go on and on about the awards that the Talking Heads have won and the music they have influenced, but that’s all really unnecessary. For me, the Talking Heads are the greatest American band for just one reason. They are one of the only groups whose music can bring me to tears at any moment of the day and without notice. A good friend once told me they loved the Simpsons because they could watch the same episode twenty times and always find something new to love about it. That is the music of the Talking Heads for me. There is something wonderfully amorphous and yet also concise about these songs. One song can mean twenty different things, just depending on how you look at it. When one of those meanings finds a home in my brain, it immediately shakes me to the core. In short, the Talking Heads are everything I love about music rolled into one band.
The reason Talking Heads just barely make the list here is because I feel like they kind of left New York behind, at a certain point. David Byrne is a big proponent of the theory that place, environment, or context has a lot to do with how art is created. In his book, How Music Works, Byrne discusses at length how those first few Talking Heads records sounded like a CBGB’s band. It’s because that were the songs were perfected. David had to do a lot more yelling and they didn’t have the space to create big arrangements or use a lot of percussion. That’s what New York sounds like. After they made it out of the city though, Talking Heads expanded past their New York roots. While I think they were still making nearly perfect music, it just drops them back on this listing of defining New York artists. Somehow, I don’t think David would mind too much.
9. Sonic Youth
Believe it or not, after almost two years of putting together these lists, this is only the second time I’ve mentioned Sonic Youth. I feel pretty bad about it, because this is one of the most important American groups of the modern age, and was absolutely the best representation of New York City during the 1980s. Sonic Youth were formed in New York City in 1981. Their most recent lineup consisted of Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals), Kim Gordon (bass guitar, vocals, guitar), Lee Ranaldo (guitar, vocals), Steve Shelley (drums) and Mark Ibold (guitar, bass guitar). In their early career, Sonic Youth was associated with the No Wave art and music scene in New York City. Part of the first wave of American noise rock groups, the band carried out their interpretation of the hardcore punk ethos throughout the evolving American underground that focused more on the DIY ethic of the genre rather than its specific sound.
During the 1980s, there was a revolution in American rock music that would come to define the radio hits of the decade that followed. What would become the alternative rock explosion, started as what I call American Underground. This scene was largely defined by geography and the biggest bands within each locale. In California, you had SST Records with Minutemen, Black Flag, and Meat Puppets. In Minneapolis, you had Twin/Tone Records with The Replacements and Hüsker Dü. Boston was Mission of Burma. Down south in Athens, GA, there was a little band called R.E.M. But in New York City, the addition was Sonic Youth. Where everywhere else in the country seemed to be drawing more influence from hardcore punk (with the exception of R.E.M.), that remained fairly stale in New York. Instead, it was more avant-garde experiments in noise that launched Sonic Youth and kept NYC on the musical map.
The band experienced relative commercial success and critical acclaim throughout their existence, continuing partly into the new millennium, including signing to major label DGC in 1990 and headlining the 1995 Lollapalooza festival. Sonic Youth have been praised for having “redefined what rock guitar could do”, using a wide variety of unorthodox guitar tunings and preparing guitars with objects like drum sticks and screwdrivers to alter the instruments’ timbre. The band are considered to be a pivotal influence on the alternative rock and indie rock movements.
In 1999, their music reached a new audience interested in 20th-century classical music and experimental music with the release of “Goodbye, 20th Century”, a double album of covers of avant-garde recordings that featured works by avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, George Maciunas, Cornelius Cardew, Nicolas Slonimsky and Christian Wolff as played by Sonic Youth along with several collaborators from the modern avant-garde music scene, such as Christian Marclay, William Winant, Wharton Tiers, Takehisa Kosugi and others. In 2011, Ranaldo announced that the band was “ending for a while” following the separation of Moore and Gordon. Nevertheless, Sonic Youth was one of the only American Underground bands that survived the decade and flowered into the alternative rock explosion and beyond. They will always be synonymous with the artistic and chaotic nature of New York City and helped change rock music in the process.
8. New York Dolls
Of course, my own knee-jerk reaction to this topic is that there is no one on the planet more ‘NYC’ than the New York motherfuckin’ Dolls. Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia, who went to junior high school and high school together, started playing in a band called “the Pox” in 1967. After the frontman quit, Murcia and Sylvain started a clothing business called “Truth and Soul” and Sylvain took a job at “A Different Drummer”, a men’s boutique that was across the street from the New York Doll Hospital, a doll repair shop. Sylvain claimed that the shop inspired the name for their future band. In 1970, they formed a band again and recruited Johnny Thunders to join on bass, though Sylvain ended up teaching him to play guitar. They called themselves the “Dolls.” When Sylvain left the band to spend a few months in London, Thunders and Murcia went their separate ways. Thunders was eventually recruited by Kane and Rick Rivets, who had been playing together in the Bronx. At Thunders’ suggestion, Murcia replaced the original drummer. Thunders played lead guitar and sang for the band known as “Actress”. An October 1971 rehearsal tape recorded by Rivets was released as Dawn of the Dolls. When Thunders decided that he no longer wanted to be the front man, David Johansen joined the band.
Initially, the group was composed of singer David Johansen, guitarists Johnny Thunders and Rick Rivets (who was replaced by Sylvain Sylvain after a few months), bass guitarist Arthur “Killer” Kane and drummer Billy Murcia. The original lineup’s first performance was on Christmas Eve 1971 at a homeless shelter, the Endicott Hotel. The band was influenced by vintage rhythm and blues, the early Rolling Stones, classic American girl group songs, and proto-punk bands such as the MC5 and The Stooges, as well as glam rockers such as Marc Bolan. In synthesizing this wide variety of influences they created something which critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote “doesn’t really sound like anything that came before it. It’s hard rock with a self-conscious wit, a celebration of camp and kitsch that retains a menacing, malevolent edge.” The band’s sound was also influenced by blues and soul, as evidenced by Johansen’s blues harmonica and their choice of cover versions. Their two Mercury albums contain their covers of songs originally performed by Bo Diddley, The Drells, Sonny Boy Williamson, The Coasters and the Jay Hawks. The jazz influence was particularly important for Johansen, whose subsequent career included work with jazz man Big Jay McNeely and blues man Hubert Sumlin. Johansen is an accomplished trumpet player.
After getting a manager and attracting some music industry interest, the New York Dolls got a break when Rod Stewart invited them to open for him at a London concert. Shortly thereafter, Murcia died of accidental drowning, at age 21, after he passed out from drugs and alcohol. Once back in New York, the Dolls auditioned drummers, including Marc Bell (who would go on to play with Richard Hell and Ramones under the stage name “Marky Ramone”) and Jerry Nolan, a friend of the band. They selected Nolan, and after US Mercury Records’ A&R man Paul Nelson signed them, they began sessions for their debut album. New York Dolls was produced by former Nazz guitarist Todd Rundgren, who had become a successful pop singer and producer later in his own right. In an interview in Creem magazine, Rundgren says he barely touched the recording; everybody was debating how to do the mix. Sales were sluggish, especially in middle US, and a Stereo Review magazine reviewer in 1973 compared the Dolls’ guitar playing to the sound of lawnmowers. America’s mass rock audience’s reaction to the Dolls was mixed. In a Creem magazine poll, they were elected both best and worst new group of 1973. The Dolls also toured Europe, and, while appearing on UK television, host Bob Harris of the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test derided the group as “mock rock,” comparing them unfavorably to the Rolling Stones.
For their next album, Too Much Too Soon, the quintet hired producer George “Shadow” Morton, whose productions for the Shangri-Las and other girl-groups in the mid-1960s had been among the band’s favorites. Mercury dropped the Dolls not long after the second album. In 1975, foundering in drug abuse and interpersonal conflicts, the band split up. During their last weeks together Malcolm McLaren helped with management. He got the band red leather outfits to wear on stage and a communist flag as backdrop. The Dolls did a 5-concert tour of New York’s five boroughs, supported by Television, which included Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell. Their last show in New York State was at The Shoram, in Quogue, New York, with Spider on drums.
Allmusic gave Too Much Too Soon five stars out of five, writing “Three years later, the Sex Pistols failed to come up with anything as musically visceral and dangerous.” In his Decade Personal Best, Robert Christgau said the album was the 4th best of the 70’s. While any conversation about the Dolls invariably turns your mind to “Trash” or “Personality Crisis”, I’ve always thought the lesser known tracks on Too Much Too Soon are simply better. Because they simply weren’t around long enough for us to realize it, Sylain and Johansen were quickly growing by leaps and bounds as songwriters (something that would be all too apparent on Johnasen’s first two solo records). We remember the Dolls as this force of nature, barreling through songs like a hurricane. While that was certainly true of Johnny Thunders, these guys were evolving into great musicians as well.
Immediately after the New York Dolls’ breakup, Johansen began a fantastic solo career. Thunders and Nolan formed The Heartbreakers with bassist Richard Hell, who had left Television the same week that Thunders and Nolan left the Dolls. Thunders died in New Orleans in 1991, allegedly of an overdose of both heroin and methadone. It also came to light that he suffered from t-cell leukemia. Nolan died in 1992 following a stroke, brought about by bacterial meningitis. Sylvain formed his own band, The Criminals, then cut a solo album for RCA, while also working with Johansen. He later became a taxicab driver in New York. In the early 1990s he moved to Los Angeles and recorded one album Sleep Baby Doll, on Fishhead Records.
The Dolls have since reunited for three new albums that I have often argued puts them in competition for the best reformations of all time. Though Killer and Thunders passed before these albums could be made, Johansen and Sylvain have only improved with time and prove that New York punk will always be vibrant. These are some of my favorite albums of all-time, and are undeniably part and parcel of the greatest city on Earth. So, from this point forward, you should know I’m serious.
7. Public Enemy
Hip-Hop offers some of the very best examples of how New York impacts the sound of American popular music. While other genres can usually at least make a claim to have sprouted somewhere else (punk is an iffy argument), Rap is an undeniably New York thing. Spawning partially from disco house parties, hip-hop as we know it could not exist without New York City. And, like every generation of authors spawns an Irishmen that changes the language, every generation of rappers has spawned a New York that changes the game. Here comes one of my very favorites. Public Enemy is an absolutely legendary hip hop group consisting of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord (who replaced Terminator X in 1999), The S1W group, Music Director Khari Wynn and Professor Griff who was dismissed from the group for anti-semitic remarks in 1990 but came back later in 1998. Formed in Long Island, New York, in 1982, Public Enemy is known for their politically charged lyrics and criticism of the American media, with an active interest in the frustrations and concerns of the African American community. Their first four albums during the late 1980s and early 1990s were all certified either gold or platinum and were, according to music critic Robert Hilburn, “the most acclaimed body of work ever by a rap act.” Public Enemy was one of the first hip-hop groups to do well internationally. PE changed the Internet’s music distribution capability by being one of the first groups to release MP3-only albums, a format virtually unknown at the time.
Public Enemy made contributions to the hip-hop world with political, social and cultural consciousness; which infused itself into skilled and poetic rhymes, using raucous sound collages as a foundation. Public Enemy developed a strong pro-Black political stance. Before PE, politically motivated hip-hop was defined by a few tracks by Ice-T, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and KRS-One. Other politically motivated opinions were shared by prototypical artists Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. PE was a revolutionary hip-hop act, basing an entire image around a specified political stance. With the successes of Public Enemy, many hip-hop artists began to celebrate Afrocentric themes, such as Kool Moe Dee, Gang Starr, X Clan, Eric B. & Rakim, Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest.
Public Enemy helped to create and define “rap metal” by collaborating with New York thrash metal outfit Anthrax in 1991. The single “Bring the Noise” was a mix of semi-militant black power lyrics, grinding guitars, and sporadic humor. The two bands, cemented by a mutual respect and the personal friendship between Chuck D and Anthrax’s Scott Ian, introduced a hitherto alien genre to rock fans, and the two seemingly disparate groups toured together. Flavor Flav’s pronouncement on stage that “They said this tour would never happen” (as heard on Anthrax’s Live: The Island Years CD) has become a legendary comment in both rock and hip-hop circles. Rock guitarist Vernon Reid (of Living Colour) contributed to Public Enemy’s recordings, and PE sampled Slayer’s “Angel of Death” half-time riff on “She Watch Channel Zero?!”
The influence of the band goes largely beyond hip-hop as the group was cited by artists as diverse as Autechre (selected in the All Tomorrow’s Parties (music festival) in 2003), Nirvana (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back being cited by Kurt Cobain among his favorite albums), Nine Inch Nails (mentioned the band in Pretty Hate Machine credits), Björk (included “Rebel Without a Pause” in her The Breezeblock Mix in July 2007), Tricky (did a cover of Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos and appears in Do You Wanna Go Our Way ??? video), Prodigy (included Public Enemy No. 1 in The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One), Ben Harper, Underground Resistance (cited by both Mad Mike and Jeff Mills), Orlando Voorn, M.I.A., Amon Tobin, Mathew Jonson and Aphex Twin (Welcome To The Terrordome being the first track played after the introduction at the Coachella festival in April 2008).
In September 2009, VH1 aired a show called “100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs” where Public Enemy earned the number one spot with their hit song, Fight the Power. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Public Enemy number 44 on its list of the Immortals: 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. The group was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007. The band were announced as inductees for the 2013 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on December 11, 2012, making them the fourth hip-hop act to be inducted after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys (all from…you guessed it…New York City).
6. Patti Smith
Patricia Lee Smith was born in Chicago. Her mother, Beverly, was a waitress, and her father, Grant, worked at the Honeywell plant. The family was of Irish heritage. She spent her early childhood in Germantown, Pennsylvania, before her family moved to Woodbury Gardens, Deptford Township, New Jersey. Her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. Patti had a strong religious upbringing and a Bible education, but left organized religion as a teenager because she felt it was too confining; much later, she wrote the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” in her cover version of Them’s “Gloria” in response to this experience. She has described having an avid interest in Tibetan Buddhism around the age of eleven or twelve, saying “I fell in love with Tibet because their essential mission was to keep a continual stream of prayer,” but that as an adult she sees clear parallels between different forms of religion, and has come to the conclusion that religious dogmas are “…man-made laws that you can either decide to abide by or not.” At this early age Smith was exposed to her first records, including Shrimp Boats by Harry Belafonte, Patience and Prudence doing The Money Tree, and Another Side of Bob Dylan, which her mother gave to her. Smith graduated from Deptford Township High School in 1964 and went to work in a factory. She gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on April 26, 1967, and chose to place her for adoption.
In 1967, she left Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and moved to New York City. She met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe there while working at a book store with a friend, poet Janet Hamill. She and Mapplethorpe had an intense romantic relationship, which was tumultuous as the pair struggled with times of poverty, and Mapplethorpe with his own sexuality. Smith considers Mapplethorpe to be one of the most important people in her life, and in her book Just Kids refers to him as “the artist of my life”. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of her became the covers for the Patti Smith Group LPs, and they remained friends until Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. In 1969, she went to Paris with her sister and started busking and doing performance art. When Smith returned to New York City, she lived in the Hotel Chelsea with Mapplethorpe; they frequented Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. Smith provided the spoken word soundtrack for Sandy Daley’s art film Robert Having His Nipple Pierced, starring Mapplethorpe. The same year Smith appeared with Wayne County in Jackie Curtis’ play Femme Fatale. As a member of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, she spent the early 70’s painting, writing, and performing. In 1971 she performed – for one night only – in Cowboy Mouth, a play that she co-wrote with Sam Shepard. The published play’s notes call for “a man who looks like a coyote and a woman who looks like a crow”. She wrote several poems, “for sam shepard” and “Sam Shepard: 9 Random Years (7 + 2)” about her relationship with Shepard.
At the time she recorded Horses, Patti Smith and her band were favorites in the New York club scene along with Blondie and The Ramones. The former’s influence can be best heard in the track “Gloria”, a radical retake on the Them song. “Birdland”, in particular, owed more to the jazz which Smith’s mother enjoyed than to the influence of punk. When recording this song, which was improvised by the band in Electric Lady Studios, Smith has said she imagined the spirit of Jimi Hendrix watching her. The lyrics of “Birdland” are based upon A Book of Dreams, a 1973 memoir of Wilhelm Reich by his son Peter. Several of the album’s songs — “Redondo Beach”, “Free Money”, “Kimberly” — were inspired by moments with members of Smith’s family, while others — “Break It Up”, “Elegie” — were written about her idols. “Land” was already a live favorite and featured the first verse of Chris Kenner’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” and contains a tribute to her long-time idol Arthur Rimbaud.” Guest musicians included Tom Verlaine of Television and Allen Lanier of Blue Öyster Cult.
Smith has been called an early pioneer of punk rock. Allmusic’s William Ruhlman said that it “isn’t hard to make the case for Patti Smith as a punk rock progenitor based on Horses” while David Antrobus from PopMatters chose Horses as his favorite album and considered it a life-changing classic. Siouxsie and the Banshees have said that “Carcass”, of the first songs from The Scream, was inspired by Horses. Michael Stipe bought the album as a high school student and says it “tore my limbs off and put them back on in a whole different order.” Morrissey and Johnny Marr shared an appreciation for the record, and one of their early compositions for The Smiths, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”, is a reworking of “Kimberly”. Courtney Love has stated that this album helped inspire her to become a rock musician. The Libertines’ song “The Boy Looked at Johnny” is named after the line in the title track of the album. In 1977, Sammy Hagar released a cover of “Free Money” on his self-titled second album.
Horses is often cited as one of the greatest albums in music history. In 2003, the album was ranked number 44 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. NME named the album number 1 in its list “20 Near-as-Damn-It Perfect Initial Efforts”. According to a list released by Time magazine in 2006, Horses is one of the All-Time 100 Greatest Albums. In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Minister of Culture, and in 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. On November 17, 2010, she won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. She is also a recipient of the 2011 Polar Music Prize.
Personally, I would argue that much of what New York City is known for is really traced back to the work of Patti Smith. Before the Dolls, you have Patti putting together the DNA of what would become punk, but she was also a poet and artist. This is Joni Mitchell with giant brass balls. More importantly however, Patti Smith is an artist that could have emerged from no other city on the planet. Everything about Smith is New York City. You can hear the subway and traffic. You can see the constant conflict that is this city. Patti Smith would have been a brilliant artist anywhere, but her art is undeniably indebted to New York City.
5. The Wu-Tang Clan
So, here we have an example of why this list is so interesting. While personally, I would prefer to grab other New York hip-hop artists like the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, or Tribe Called Quest, I can’t think of another group or artist in the genre that better defines the sound of NYC (those that would argue Jay-Z or Nas did not live in the same city I did). In the late 1980s, cousins Robert Diggs, Gary Grice, and Russell Jones formed a group named Force of the Imperial Master, also known as the All in Together Now Crew. Each member recorded under an alias: Grice as The Genius, Diggs as Prince Rakeem or The Scientist, and Jones as The Specialist. The group never signed to a major label, but caught the attention of the New York rap scene and was recognized by rapper Biz Markie. By 1991, The Genius and Prince Rakeem were signed to separate record labels. The Genius released Words from the Genius (1991) on Cold Chillin’ Records and Prince Rakeem released Ooh I Love You Rakeem (1991) on Tommy Boy Records. Both were soon dropped by their labels. Embittered but unbowed, they took on new monikers (The Genius became GZA while Prince Rakeem became RZA) and refocused their efforts. RZA discussed the matter in their release The Wu-Tang Manual, stating “[Tommy Boy] made the decision to sign House of Pain over us. When they dropped me, I was thinking, ‘Damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me.'”
RZA began collaborating with Dennis Coles, better known as Ghostface Killah, another rapper from the Stapleton Projects apartment complex in Staten Island. The duo decided to create a hip hop group whose ethos would be a blend of “Eastern philosophy picked up from kung fu movies, watered-down Nation of Islam preaching picked up on the New York streets, and comic books.” Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was recorded at Firehouse Studio in New York City from 1992 to 1993. The album was produced, mixed, arranged, and programmed by RZA, and was mastered at The Hit Factory in New York City by Chris Gehringer. Because of an extremely limited budget, the group was only able to record in a small, inexpensive studio; with up to eight of the nine Wu-Tang members in the studio at once, the quarters were frequently crowded. To decide who appeared on each song, RZA forced the Wu-Tang rappers to battle with each other. This competition led to the track “Meth Vs. Chef”, a battle between Method Man and Raekwon over the rights to rap over RZA’s beat; this track was left off the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album but surfaced on Method Man’s debut, 1994’s Tical.
Enter the Wu-Tang had surprising chart success, despite its raw, underground sound. It peaked at number 41 on the Billboard 200 chart and reached number eight on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. The album continued to sell steadily and was eventually certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America on May 15, 1995. Since its release, Enter the Wu-Tang has risen in stature to become one of the most highly-regarded albums in hip hop. The album was originally given a rating of 4.5 mics out of 5 in The Source magazine in 1994, however, it was given a classic 5 mic rating in a later issue of the magazine. Similar to The Source, XXL magazine gave the album a classic rating of “XXL” in its retrospective 2007 issue. In the book Spin Alternative Record Guide, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has a critical rating of 8/10 from Spin. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the album among their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, asserting that “East-coast hip-hop made a return in 1993.” The magazine later listed it as one of their Essential Albums of the 90s. The Source cited Enter the Wu-Tang as one of the 100 Best Rap Albums, while also naming “Protect Ya Neck/Method Man” and “C.R.E.A.M.” among the 100 Best Rap Singles. MTV declared it among The Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time. Blender named the album among the 500 CDs You Must Own. Publications based outside of the United States have also acclaimed 36 Chambers as well; Australia’s Juice magazine placed it at number 40 on its list of 100 Greatest Albums of the ’90s, and Les Inrockuptibles ranked it number 59 on a list of The 100 Best Albums 1986–1996. That’s just the first album.
Trying the count up the various (and fantastic) solo and side projects from this collective is downright maddening. Wu-Tang has influenced many current-day hip hop acts in the areas of rapping, production technique, subject matter and image. Among these contributions have been RZA’s sampling style, certain Clan members’ mafioso rap personas, usage of slang terms, and the tendency of artists to run in tightly knit groups. Collectively known as the Wu-Tang Killa Bees, About.com ranked them the No. 1 greatest hip hop group of all time, and stated “No weapon in hip-hop history can rival the chaotic cohesion of the Wu-Tang Clan. The Clan had so many characters, each with his own eccentricities. They were fearless in their approach. There’s a good reason no group has been able to successfully recreate their sound. The crew spawned countless loosely associated acts. Their classic albums spawned classic albums.” Kris Ex of Rolling Stone called Wu-Tang Clan “the best rap group ever.” In 2004, NME hailed them as one of the most influential groups of the last ten years. They have a place here however because that signature weight that comes with the great RZA productions is, to me, the single greatest aura of New York in all of hip-hop.
4. Paul Simon
Paul Frederic Simon (born October 13, 1941) is not just one of the greatest New York musicians, he is one of the greatest songwriters to ever walk the planet Earth. Simon’s fame, influence, and commercial success began as part of the duo Simon & Garfunkel, formed in 1964 with musical partner Art Garfunkel. Simon wrote most of the pair’s songs, including three that reached No. 1 on the U.S. singles charts: “The Sound of Silence”, “Mrs. Robinson”, and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. The duo split up in 1970 at the height of their popularity, and Simon began a successful solo career as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, recording three highly acclaimed albums over the next five years. In 1986, he released Graceland, an album inspired by South African township music. Simon also wrote and starred in the film One-Trick Pony (1980) and co-wrote the Broadway musical (and much maligned) The Capeman (1998) with the poet Derek Walcott.
Simon & Garfunkel first formed the group Tom & Jerry in 1957 and had their first success with the minor hit “Hey, Schoolgirl”. As Simon & Garfunkel, the duo rose to fame in 1965, largely on the strength of the hit single “The Sound of Silence”. Their music was featured in the landmark film The Graduate (1967), propelling them further into the public consciousness. Most well known for their vocal harmonies, Simon & Garfunkel were among the most popular recording artists of the 1960s. Their biggest hits – including “The Sound of Silence” (1964), “I Am a Rock” (1965), “Homeward Bound” (1965), “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” (1966), “A Hazy Shade of Winter” (1966), “Mrs. Robinson” (1968), “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1969), “The Boxer” (1969), and “Cecilia” (1969) – reached number one in several charts. They have received several Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Their sometimes rocky relationship led to their last album, Bridge over Troubled Water, being delayed several times due to artistic disagreements, and as a result the duo broke up in 1970. It was their most successful album worldwide to date, reaching number one in several countries, including the United States, and receiving 8× platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it their highest-selling studio album in the U.S. and second-highest album overall. Simon & Garfunkel have, at times, reunited to perform and sometimes tour together. They have done so in every decade since the 1970 breakup, most famously for 1981’s The Concert in Central Park, which attracted more than 500,000 people, making it the 7th-most attended concert in the history of music. In 2004, they were ranked No. 40 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.
After Simon and Garfunkel split in 1970, Simon began to write and record solo material. His album Paul Simon was released in January 1972, preceded by his first experiment with world music, the Jamaican-inspired “Mother and Child Reunion,” considered one of the first examples of reggae by a white musician. The single was a hit, reaching both the American and British Top 5. The album received universal acclaim, with critics praising the variety of styles and the confessional lyrics, reaching number 4 in the US and number 1 in the UK and Japan. It later spawned another Top 30 hit with “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”.
Simon’s next project was the pop-folk album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, released in May 1973. It contained some of his most popular and polished recordings. The lead single, “Kodachrome,” was a number 2 hit in America, and the follow-up, the gospel-flavored “Loves Me Like a Rock” was even bigger, topping the Cashbox charts. Other songs, like the weary “American Tune” or the melancholic “Something So Right”—a tribute to Simon’s first wife, Peggy—became standards in the musician’s catalogue. Critical and commercial reception for this second album was even stronger than for his debut. At the time, reviewers noted how the songs were fresh and unworried on the surface, while still exploring socially and politically conscious themes on a deeper level. The album reached number 1 on the Cashbox album charts. As a souvenir for the tour that came next, in 1974 it was released as a live album, Live Rhymin’, which was moderately successful and displayed some changes in Simon’s music style, adopting world and religious music.
Highly anticipated, Still Crazy After All These Years was Simon’s next album. Released in October 1975 and produced by Simon and Phil Ramone, it marked another departure. The mood of the album was darker, as he wrote and recorded it in the wake of his divorce. Preceded by the feel-good duet with Phoebe Snow, “Gone at Last” (a Top 25 hit) and the Simon & Garfunkel reunion track “My Little Town” (a number 9 on Billboard), the album was his only No. 1 on the Billboard charts to date. The 18th Grammy Awards named it the Album of the Year and Simon’s performance the year’s Best Male Pop Vocal. With Simon in the forefront of popular music, the third single from the album, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” reached the top spot of the Billboard charts, his only single to reach number 1 on this list. Also, on May 3, 1976, Simon put together a benefit show at Madison Square Garden to raise money for the New York Public Library. Phoebe Snow, Jimmy Cliff and the Brecker Brothers also performed. The concert produced over $30,000 for the Library.
Simon has earned 12 Grammys for his solo and collaborative work, including the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in 2006 was selected as one of the “100 People Who Shaped the World” by Time magazine. Among many other honors, Simon was the first recipient of the Library of Congress’s Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2007. In 1986 Simon was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music where he currently serves on the Board of Trustees. Amongst all of that, Simon has always seemed like the NYC everyman. He comes off as a guy from a working class burrough, just trying to make it through the day. It’s almost as if this is a completely normal guy who has been given a fantastic voice just through the experiences he’s picked up off the streets of the nation’s largest city. I’m sure that’s a bit reductive of his talent, but it is sort of poetic to think of Simon as New York’s version of the American Dream.
3. The Ramones
1976 was the debut year of a band of misfits from Forest Hills, Queens that would change the world in their wake. 1977 may be cited as the birth of punk. As would become their legacy, The Ramones were there first. If punk wasn’t born when they showed up, it sure as hell was after. John Cummings and Thomas Erdelyi had both been in a high-school garage band from 1966 to 1967 known as the Tangerine Puppets. They became friends with Douglas Colvin, who had recently moved to the area from Germany, and Jeffry Hyman, who was the initial lead singer of the glam rock band Sniper, founded in 1972. The Ramones began taking shape in early 1974, when Cummings and Colvin invited Hyman to join them in a band. The initial lineup featured Colvin on lead vocals and rhythm guitar, Cummings on lead guitar, and Hyman on drums. Colvin, who soon switched from rhythm guitar to bass, was the first to adopt the name “Ramone”, calling himself Dee Dee Ramone. He was inspired by Paul McCartney’s use of the pseudonym Paul Ramon during his Silver Beatles days. Dee Dee convinced the other members to take on the name and came up with the idea of calling the band the Ramones. Hyman and Cummings became Joey Ramone and Johnny Ramone, respectively.They performed 2,263 concerts, touring virtually nonstop for 22 years. In 1996, after a tour with the Lollapalooza music festival, the band played a farewell concert and disbanded. Little more than eight years after the breakup, the band’s three founding members—lead singer Joey Ramone, guitarist Johnny Ramone, and bassist Dee Dee Ramone—had died.
Their only record with enough U.S. sales to be certified gold was the compilation album Ramones Mania. However, recognition of the band’s importance built over the years, and they are now cited in many assessments of all-time great rock music, such as the Rolling Stone list of the 50 Greatest Artists of All Time and VH1′s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. In 2002, the Ramones were ranked the second-greatest band of all time by Spin magazine, trailing only The Beatles. On March 18, 2002, the Ramones—including the three founders and drummers Tommy and Marky Ramone—were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2011, the group was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“We didn’t sell a lot of records, but somehow we left an impression.”
Prior to the band signing to Sire, they were seen by Lisa Robinson, an editor of Hit Parader, during an early 1975 performance. Robinson began popularizing the band by writing about them in the magazines she edited. Robinson contacted Danny Fields and asked him to manage the band, which he agreed to in November 1975. A Marty Thau-produced demo album was recorded at 914 Sound Studios and included “Judy Is a Punk” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”. Soon after the demos were presented to Sire A&R co-ordinator Craig Leon the band was signed to Sire Records.
The Ramones recorded their debut album, Ramones, in February 1976. The album features a number of themes including Nazism, violence, male prostitution and drug use, as well as lighter fare such as horror movies and teenage romance. There is a version of the Chris Montez song “Let’s Dance”. A number of the tracks have backing vocals which were sung by Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone’s younger brother), Tommy Ramone, and engineer Rob Freeman. Of the fourteen songs on the album, the longest, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”, barely surpassed two-and-a-half minutes. While the songwriting credits were shared by the entire band, Dee Dee was the primary writer. Ramones was produced by Sire’s Craig Leon, with Tommy as associate producer, on an extremely low budget of about $6,400 and released in April. The now iconic front cover photograph of the band was taken by Roberta Bayley, a photographer for Punk magazine. Punk, which was largely responsible for codifying the term for the scene emerging around CBGB, ran a cover story on the Ramones in its third issue, the same month as the record’s release. The cover art was ranked number 58 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 100 Greatest Album Covers.
The Ramones’ debut LP was greeted by rock critics with glowing reviews. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote, “I love this record—love it—even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially)…. For me, it blows everything else off the radio”. In Rolling Stone, Paul Nelson described it as “constructed almost entirely of rhythm tracks of an exhilarating intensity rock & roll has not experienced since its earliest days.” Characterizing the band as “authentic American primitives whose work has to be heard to be understood”, he declared, “It is time popular music followed the other arts in honoring its primitives.” Newsday‘s Wayne Robbins simply anointed the Ramones as “the best young rock ‘n’ roll band in the known universe.”
However, despite Sire’s high hopes for it, Ramones was not a commercial success, reaching only number 111 on the Billboard album chart. The two singles issued from the album, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”, failed to chart at all. At the band’s first major performance outside of New York, a June date in Youngstown, Ohio, approximately ten people showed up. It wasn’t until they made a brief tour of England that they began to see the fruits of their labor; a performance at The Roundhouse in London on July 4, 1976 (second-billed to the Flamin’ Groovies), organized by Linda Stein, was a resounding success. Their Roundhouse appearance and a club date the following night—where the band met members of the Sex Pistols and The Clash—helped galvanize the burgeoning UK punk rock scene. The Flamin’ Groovies/Ramones double bill was successfully reprised at The Roxy in Los Angeles the following month, fueling the punk scene there as well. The Ramones were becoming an increasingly popular live act—a Toronto performance in September energized yet another growing punk scene.
Charles M. Young, an employee for Rolling Stone, praised the album saying that the album is “one of the funniest rock records ever made and, if punk continues to gain momentum, a historic turning point.” Jeff Tamarkin of Allmusic said that the album began the punk rock era and also proclaimed “rock’s mainstream didn’t know what hit it.” In 1999, Collins Gem Classic Albums wrote that “They stared from the cover of this magnificent debut album with dumb defiance written all over them. The songs within were a short, sharp exercise in vicious speed-thrash, driven by ferocious guitars and yet halting in an instant. It was the simple pop dream taken to its minimalist extreme. There just couldn’t be anything faster or harder than this. The Ramones was the starting gun for English punk.” Joe S. Harrington declared that the album “split the history of rock ‘n’ roll in half”. Theunis Bates, a music writer for Time magazine and an editor at worldpop.com, composed that “Ramones stripped rock back to its basic elements,” and noted that its “lyrics are very simple, boiled-down declarations of teen lust and need.” Bates later went on to say that it “is the ultimate punk statement”.
“To me, punk is about being an individual and going against the grain and standing up and saying ‘This is who I am’.”
The album was included in Spin‘s List of Top Ten College Cult Classics, noting that “everything good that’s happened to music in the last fourteen years can be directly traced to the Ramones.” The band’s debut album was ranked 33 in Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In 2003 Ramones was considered by Spin magazine’s Chuck Klosterman, Greg Milner, and Alex Pappademas to be the sixth most influential album of all time. They noted that the album “saved rock from itself and punk rock from art-gallery pretension, bless their pointy little heads,” and also said that the their songs had, “one lightning-bolt riff.” In Spin‘s 1995 Alternative Record Guide the album is listed in the top spot of their Top 100 Alternative Albums.
Ramones is considered to have established the musical genre punk rock, as well as popularizing it years afterward. Nicholas Rombes, author of the 33⅓ book Ramones wrote that it offered “alienated future rock,” and that it, “disconnected from tradition.” Since it is their debut album it began the Ramones’ influence on popular music, with examples being genres such as heavy metal, thrash metal, indie pop, grunge, and post-punk. In 2001, Spin included it in its special issue 25 Years of Punk with a list of The 50 Most Essential Punk Records, where it was number 1 in the list. Tony James said that “Everybody went up three gears the day they got that first Ramones album. Punk rock—that rama-lama super fast stuff—is totally down to the Ramones. Bands were just playing in an MC5 groove until then.” The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the 2002 Induction Ceremony. The web-site said that “When the [Ramones] hit the street in 1976 with their self-titled first album, the rock scene in general had become somewhat bloated and narcissistic. The Ramones got back to basics: simple, speedy, stripped-down rock and roll songs. Voice, guitar, bass, drums. No makeup, no egos, no light shows, no nonsense. And though the subject matter was sometimes dark, emanating from a sullen adolescent basement of the mind, the group also brought cartoonish fun and high-energy excitement back to rock and roll.”
On July 20, 1999, Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, Tommy, Marky, and C.J. appeared together at the Virgin Megastore in New York City for an autograph signing. This was the last occasion on which the original four members of the group appeared together. Joey, who had been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1995, died of the illness on April 15, 2001, in New York. In 2002, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which specifically named Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, Tommy, and Marky. At the ceremony, the surviving inductees spoke on behalf of the band. Tommy spoke first, saying how honored the band felt, but how much it would have meant for Joey. Johnny thanked the band’s fans and blessed George W. Bush and his presidency, Dee Dee humorously congratulated and thanked himself, while Marky thanked Tommy for influencing his drum style. Green Day played “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” as a tribute, demonstrating the Ramones’ continuing influence on later rock musicians. The ceremony was one of Dee Dee’s last public appearances; on June 5, 2002, two months later, he was found at his Hollywood home, dead from a heroin overdose. On November 30, 2003, New York City unveiled a sign designating East 2nd Street at the corner of Bowery as Joey Ramone Place. The singer lived on East 2nd for a time, and the sign is near the former Bowery site of CBGB. Johnny, who had been privately battling prostate cancer, died on September 15, 2004, in Los Angeles. On the same day as Johnny’s death, the world’s first Ramones Museum opened its doors to the public. Located in Berlin, Germany, the museum features more than 300 items of memorabilia, including a pair of stage-worn jeans from Johnny, a stage-worn glove from Joey, Marky’s sneakers, and C.J.’s stage-worn bass strap.
The Ramones were inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame in 2007. In February 2011, the group was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Drummers Tommy, Marky, and Richie attended the ceremony. Marky declared, “This is amazing. I never expected this. I’m sure Johnny, Joey, and Dee Dee would never have expected this.” Richie noted that it was the first time ever that all three drummers were under the same roof, and mused that he couldn’t “help thinking that [Joey] is watching us right now with a little smile on his face behind his rose-colored glasses.”
In terms of pure influence on rock music, there are few groups that can compete with both the widespread and immediate impact The Ramones had. The Ramones’ first British concert, at London’s Roundhouse concert hall, was held on July 4, 1976, the United States Bicentennial. The Sex Pistols were playing in Sheffield that evening, supported by The Clash, making their public debut. The next night, members of both bands attended the Ramones’ gig at the Dingwall’s club. Ramones manager Danny Fields recalls a conversation between Johnny Ramone and Clash bassist Paul Simonon (which he mislocates at the Roundhouse): “Johnny asked him, ‘What do you do? Are you in a band?’ Paul said, ‘Well, we just rehearse. We call ourselves the Clash but we’re not good enough.’ Johnny said, ‘Wait till you see us—we stink, we’re lousy, we can’t play. Just get out there and do it.'” Another band whose members saw the Ramones perform, The Damned, played their first show two days later. The central fanzine of the early UK punk scene, Sniffin’ Glue, was named after the song “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”, which appeared on the debut LP.
Ramones concerts and recordings influenced many musicians central to the development of California punk as well, including Greg Ginn and Henry Rollins of Black Flag (Rollins once claimed that the Ramones’ first two records could solve the Middle Eastern conflict), Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Brett Gurewitz of Bad Religion, and members of the Descendents. Canada’s first major punk scenes—in Toronto and in British Columbia’s Victoria and Vancouver—were also heavily influenced by the Ramones. In the late 1970s, many bands emerged with musical styles deeply indebted to the band’s. There were The Lurkers from England, The Undertones from Ireland, Teenage Head from Canada, and The Zeros and The Dickies from southern California. The seminal hardcore band Bad Brains took its name from a Ramones song. The Riverdales, made up of former members of Screeching Weasel, have emulated the sound of the Ramones throughout their career. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong named his son Joey in homage to Joey Ramone, and drummer Tré Cool named his daughter Ramona.
The Ramones also influenced musicians associated with other genres, such as heavy metal. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has described the importance of Johnny’s rapid-fire guitar playing style to his own musical development. Motörhead lead singer Lemmy, a friend of the Ramones since the late 1970s, mixed the band’s “Go Home Ann” in 1985. The members of Motörhead later composed the song “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” as a tribute, and Lemmy performed at the final Ramones concert in 1996. In the realm of alternative rock, the song “53rd and 3rd” lent its name to a British indie pop label cofounded by Stephen Pastel of the Scottish band The Pastels. Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam (who introduced the band members at their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction) and The Strokes are among the many alternative rock and metal musicians who have credited the Ramones with inspiring them. Throughout their careers however, the greatest gift the Ramones bestowed was bringing their no-nonsense style of New York rock to the world and creating genres in their wake.
2. Lou Reed
Of anyone in rock ‘n’ roll, there has been no one, I mean no one, that symbolizes, represents, and embodies New York City more than Lou Reed. Reed was born at Beth El Hospital in Brooklyn and grew up in Freeport, Long Island. Contrary to some sources, his birth name was Lewis Allan Reed, not Louis Firbanks, a name that was coined as a joke by Lester Bangs in Creem magazine. Reed is the son of Toby (née Futterman) and Sidney Joseph Reed, an accountant. His family was Jewish (as were most great New York music families). Having learned to play the guitar from the radio, he developed an early interest in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and during high school played in a number of bands. His first recording was as a member of a doo wop-style group called The Jades. In 1956, Reed, who is bisexual, received electroconvulsive therapy as a teenager, which was intended to cure his bisexuality; he wrote about the experience in his 1974 song, “Kill Your Sons.”
They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue, and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.
—Lou Reed, Please Kill Me
Reed began attending Syracuse University in the fall of 1960, studying journalism, film directing, and creative writing. In 1961 he began hosting a late-night radio program on WAER called “Excursions On A Wobbly Rail.” Named after a song by pianist Cecil Taylor, the program typically featured doo wop, rhythm and blues and jazz, particularly the free jazz developed in the mid-1950s. Many of Reed’s guitar techniques, such as the guitar-drum roll, were inspired by jazz saxophonists, notably Ornette Coleman. Reed graduated from Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in June 1964.
In 1964, Reed moved to New York City and began working as an in-house songwriter for Pickwick Records. In 1964, he scored a minor hit with the single “The Ostrich,” a parody of popular dance songs of the time, which included lines such as “put your head on the floor and have somebody step on it.” His employers felt that the song had hit potential, and arranged for a band to be assembled around Reed to promote the recording. The ad hoc group, called “The Primitives,” included Welsh musician John Cale, who had recently moved to New York to study music and was playing viola in composer La Monte Young’s Theater of Eternal Music, along with Tony Conrad. Cale and Conrad were both surprised to find that for “The Ostrich,” Reed tuned each string of his guitar to the same note. This technique created a drone effect similar to their experimentation in Young’s avant-garde ensemble. Disappointed with Reed’s performance, Cale was nevertheless impressed by Reed’s early repertoire (including “Heroin”), and a partnership began to evolve. Reed and Cale lived together on the Lower East Side, and after inviting Reed’s college acquaintances, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker, to join the group, they formed the Velvet Underground. Though internally unstable (Cale left in 1968, Reed in 1970), and without commercial success, the band has a long-standing reputation as one of the most influential in rock history.
The group soon caught the attention of artist Andy Warhol. One of Warhol’s first contributions was to integrate them into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Warhol’s associates inspired many of Reed’s songs as he fell into a thriving, multifaceted artistic scene. Reed rarely gives an interview without paying homage to Warhol as a mentor. Conflict emerged when Warhol had the idea for the group to take on a chanteuse, the European former model and singer Nico. Reed and the others registered their objection by titling their debut album The Velvet Underground & Nico to imply that Nico was not accepted as a member of the group. Despite his initial resistance, Reed wrote several songs for Nico to sing, and the two were briefly lovers (as were Nico and Cale later). The Velvet Underground & Nico reached number 171 on the charts. Today, however, it is considered one of the most influential rock albums ever recorded. Rolling Stone has it listed as the 13th most influential album of all time. Brian Eno once famously stated that although few people bought the album, most of those who did were inspired to form their own band.
By the time the band recorded White Light/White Heat, Nico had quit and Warhol was fired, both against Cale’s wishes. Warhol’s replacement as manager, Steve Sesnick, convinced Reed to drive Cale out of the band. Morrison and Tucker were discomfited by Reed’s tactics but continued with the group. Cale’s replacement was Doug Yule, whom Reed would often facetiously introduce as his younger brother. The group now took on a more pop-oriented sound and acted more as a vehicle for Reed to develop his songwriting craft. The group released two albums with this line up: 1969’s The Velvet Underground and 1970’s Loaded. The latter included two of the group’s most commercially successful songs, “Rock and Roll” and “Sweet Jane”. Reed left the Velvet Underground in August 1970; the band disintegrated as core members Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker departed in 1971 and 1972, respectively. Yule continued until early 1973, and the band released one more studio album, Squeeze, under the Velvet Underground name.
After the band’s move to Atlantic Records’ Cotillion label, their new manager pushed Reed to change the subject matter of his songs to lighter topics in hopes of commercial success. The band’s album Loaded had taken more time to record than the previous three albums together, but had not broken the band through to a wider audience. Reed briefly retired to his parents’ home on Long Island. After quitting the Velvet Underground in August 1970, Reed took a job at his father’s tax accounting firm as a typist, by his own account earning $40 a week. A year later, however, he signed a recording contract with RCA Records and recorded his first solo album in London with top session musicians including Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, members of the progressive rock group Yes. The album, simply titled Lou Reed, contained smoothly produced, re-recorded versions of unreleased Velvet Underground songs, some of which were originally recorded by the Velvets for Loaded but shelved. This first solo album was overlooked by most pop music critics (although Stephen Holden in Rolling Stone called it “almost perfect”) and it did not sell in significant numbers.
In December 1972, Reed released Transformer. David Bowie and Mick Ronson co-produced the album and introduced Reed to a wider popular audience (specifically in the U.K.). The hit single “Walk on the Wild Side” was an ironic yet affectionate salute to the misfits, hustlers, and transvestites who once surrounded Andy Warhol. Each of the song’s five verses poignantly describes an actual person who had been a fixture at The Factory during the mid-to-late 1960s: (1) Holly Woodlawn, (2) Candy Darling, (3) “Little Joe” Dallesandro, (4) “Sugar Plum Fairy” Joe Campbell and (5) Jackie Curtis. The song’s cleverly transgressive lyrics evaded radio censorship. Though the jazzy arrangement (courtesy of bassist Herbie Flowers and saxophonist Ronnie Ross) was musically somewhat atypical for Reed, it eventually became his signature song. The song came about as a result of his commission to compose a soundtrack to a theatrical adaptation of Nelson Algren’s novel of the same name, though the play failed to materialize. Ronson’s arrangements brought out new aspects of Reed’s songs. “Perfect Day,” for example, features delicate strings and soaring dynamics (thanks to Reed telling Ronson to play something ‘gray’ for the song).
Though Transformer would prove to be Reed’s commercial and critical pinnacle, there was no small amount of resentment in Reed devoted to the shadow the record cast over the rest of his career. An argument between Bowie and Reed ended their working relationship for several years, though its subject is not known. The two reconciled some years later, and Reed performed with Bowie at the latter’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997. The two would not formally collaborate again until 2003’s The Raven. Touring in support of Transformer posed the challenge of forming a band for the first time since joining the Velvets. Reed took the simple path of hiring an inexperienced bar band, the Tots. Reed spent much of 1972 and the winter of 1973 on the road with them. Though they improved over the months, criticism of their still-basic abilities ultimately led Reed to fire them mid-tour. He chose keyboardist Moogy Klingman to come up with a new five-member backing band on barely a week’s notice. Thus the tour continued through the spring with a denser, bluesier and tighter sound that presaged the very successful live albums Reed would record with all different musicians in December.
Reed followed Transformer with the darker Berlin, a concept album about two junkies in love in that city. The songs variously concern domestic abuse (“Caroline Says I,” “Caroline Says II”), drug addiction (“How Do You Think It Feels”), adultery and prostitution (“The Kids”), and suicide (“The Bed”). After Berlin came two albums in 1974, Sally Can’t Dance and a live record Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal, which contained performances of the Velvet Underground songs “Sweet Jane” and “Heroin”. Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal became his biggest selling album, and its follow-up Lou Reed Live, recorded on the same occasions in December 1973, kept Reed in the public eye with strong sales after its release in early 1975.
As he had done with Berlin after Transformer, in 1975 Reed responded to commercial success with a commercial failure, a double album of electronically generated audio feedback, Metal Machine Music. Critics interpreted it as a gesture of contempt, an attempt to break his contract with RCA or to alienate his less sophisticated fans. But Reed claimed that the album was a genuine artistic effort, even suggesting that quotations of classical music could be found buried in the feedback. Lester Bangs declared it “genius,” though also as psychologically disturbing. The album was reportedly returned to stores by the thousands after a few weeks. Though later admitting that the liner notes’ list of instruments is fictitious and intended as parody, Reed maintains that MMM was and is a serious album. He has since stated though that at the time he had taken it seriously, he was also “very stoned”. In the 2000s it was adapted for orchestral performance by the German ensemble Zeitkratzer.
By contrast, 1975’s Coney Island Baby was mainly a warm and mellow album, though for its characters Reed still drew on the underbelly of city life. At this time his lover was a transgender woman, Rachel, mentioned in the dedication of “Coney Island Baby” and appearing in the photos on the cover of Reed’s 1977 “best of” album, Walk on the Wild Side: The Best of Lou Reed. While Rock and Roll Heart, his 1976 debut for his new record label Arista, fell short of expectations, Street Hassle (1978) was a return to form in the midst of the punk scene he had helped to inspire. Reed was dismissive of punk, however, and rejected any affiliation with it. “I’m too literate to be into punk rock . . . The whole CBGB’s, new Max’s thing that everyone’s into and what’s going on in London—you don’t seriously think I’m responsible for what’s mostly rubbish?” Okay, I didn’t say he wasn’t also a complete douchebag. The Bells (1979) featured jazz musician Don Cherry, and was followed the next year by Growing Up in Public with guitarist Chuck Hammer. Around this period he also appeared as a sleazy record producer in Paul Simon’s film One Trick Pony. Reed also played several unannounced one-off concerts in tiny downtown Manhattan clubs with the likes of Cale, Patti Smith, and David Byrne during this period.
Of course, this leads us to the album that solidified Reed’s extremely high placement on this list, 1989’s New York. Reed’s straightforward, rock and roll sound on this album was unusual for the time and along with other releases such as Graham Parker’s The Mona Lisa’s Sister presaged a back-to-basics turn in mainstream rock music. On the other hand, the lyrics through the 14 songs are profuse and carefully woven, making New York Reed’s most overtly conceptual album since the early 1970s. His polemical liner notes direct the listener to hear the 57-minute album in one sitting, “as though it were a book or a movie.” The lyrics vent anger at many public figures in the news at the time. Reed mentions by name the Virgin Mary, the NRA, Rudy Giuliani, “the President”, the “Statue of Bigotry”, Buddha, Mike Tyson, Bernard Goetz, Mr. Waldheim, “the Pontiff”, Jesse Jackson, Hendrix, Swaggart, and Morton Downey. “An album which, in terms of descriptive lyrics, may easily be his best to date,” suggested Fred Dellar in a top-rated A*:1* review for Hi-Fi News & Record Review. “In some ways it’s a small record, merely dialogue set out over the background of two relatively unobtrusive guitars plus bass and drums. But what a dialogue, what a delivery and what a range of targets.” “Whether or not you buy Reed’s line about New York being a single integrated experience ‘like a book or a movie’,” remarked Q in its end-of-year round-up, “this is indisputably one of the landmark album of an inconsistently brilliant career.” In a five-star review of a subsequent reissue, Q‘s Bill Prince noted that it “signaled the beginning of the defrosting of Reed’s Velvet Underground past that has so far marked out his ’90s.”. In 2006, Q placed New York at #26 in its list of “40 Best Albums of the ’80s”. In 1989, Rolling Stone ranked it the 19th best album of the 1980s. Mark Deming wrote in his AllMusic review that “New York is a masterpiece of literate, adult rock & roll, and the finest album of Reed’s solo career.” In 2012, Slant Magazine listed it at #70 on its list of “Best Albums of the 1980s”.
Following Andy Warhol’s death after routine surgery in 1987, Reed again collaborated with John Cale on the biographical Songs for Drella, Warhol’s nickname. The album marked an end to a 22-year estrangement from Cale. On the album, Reed sings of his love for his late friend, but also criticizes both the doctors who were unable to save Warhol’s life and Warhol’s would-be assassin, Valerie Solanas. In 1990, following a twenty-year hiatus, the Velvet Underground reformed for a Fondation Cartier benefit in France. Reed released his sixteenth solo record, Magic and Loss, in 1992, an album about mortality, inspired by the death of two close friends from cancer. In 1993, the Velvet Underground again reunited and toured throughout Europe, although plans for a North American tour were cancelled following another falling out between Reed and Cale. In 1996, the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, Reed performed a song entitled “Last Night I Said Goodbye to My Friend” alongside former bandmates John Cale and Maureen Tucker, in dedication to Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, who had died the previous August.
Throughout his career, Reed has moved around but has always functioned as a literary and musical ambassador of New York City. He freely admits the level to which the city has breathed life into his art throughout his career. Even his reading of Poe’s The Raven is hard to hear without imagining the Manhattan skyline. Reed has become one of those New York characters, like Robert De Niro or Spike Lee. Not only can you imagine him puddling around Brooklyn in a hooded sweatshirt, no other image of the man really makes sense. Literary, artistic, streetwise, brutally independent, and as weird as he wants to be, Lou Reed is the very incarnation of New York City (if there ever really could be such a thing).
1. Duke Ellington
I’m sorry, but there is seriously zero question about the most important New York musician of all time. You may whine and cry about how jazz has become less important over time, but there is absolutely no argument as to why Duke Ellington isn’t the absolute embodiment of the sort of genius this city can foster. When I lived in the city, I worked as a chef in Manhattan and would take the Q Train home to Brooklyn every night at a time when it was only me and the hobos on the train. The Q was nice because you would cross the river from Manhattan by going over the river and get this perfect view of the Manhattan skyline on one side and the piers on the other. As I was coming home one night, Duke’s “Self Portrait of the Bean” (from Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins) randomly popped onto my iPod. As I looked back on the city skyline behind me, tired from a full day’s work, I shared something with Duke Ellington. This piece of music reached through time and grabbed me because I knew that Duke understood exactly how I felt about this city. I’ve never had a more magical moment with music. It almost brought me to my knees with awe. THAT is Duke Ellington in New York City. Edward Kennedy Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 to James Edward Ellington and Daisy Kennedy Ellington. Daisy and J.E. were both pianists. Daisy primarily played parlor songs and J.E. preferred operatic arias. They lived with his maternal grandparents at 2129 Ida Place (now Ward Place), NW in the West End neighborhood of Washington, D.C. His father, James Edward Ellington, was born in Lincolnton, North Carolina on April 15, 1879 and moved to Washington, D.C. in 1886 with his parents. Daisy Kennedy was born in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 1879, and was the daughter of a former American slave. James Ellington made blueprints for the United States Navy.
At the age of seven, Ellington began taking piano lessons. Daisy surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him to live elegantly. Ellington’s childhood friends noticed that “his casual, offhand manner, his easy grace, and his dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman”, and began calling him Duke. Ellington credited his “chum” Edgar McEntree for the nickname. “I think he felt that in order for me to be eligible for his constant companionship, I should have a title. So he called me Duke.” Though Ellington took piano lessons, he was more interested in baseball. “President Roosevelt (Teddy) would come by on his horse sometimes, and stop and watch us play”, he recalled.
In the summer of 1914, while working as a soda jerk at the Poodle Dog Cafe, he wrote his first composition, “Soda Fountain Rag” (also known as the “Poodle Dog Rag”). Ellington created “Soda Fountain Rag” by ear, because he had not yet learned to read and write music. “I would play the ‘Soda Fountain Rag’ as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot”, Ellington recalled. “Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertoire.” In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress, Ellington wrote that he missed more lessons than he attended, feeling at the time that playing the piano was not his talent. Ellington started sneaking into Frank Holiday’s Poolroom at the age of fourteen. Hearing the poolroom pianists play ignited Ellington’s love for the instrument and he began to take his piano studies seriously. Among the many piano players he listened to were Doc Perry, Lester Dishman, Louis Brown, Turner Layton, Gertie Wells, Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, Blind Johnny, Cliff Jackson, Claude Hopkins, Phil Wurd, Caroline Thornton, Luckey Roberts, Eubie Blake, Joe Rochester, and Harvey Brooks.
Ellington began listening to, watching, and imitating ragtime pianists, not only in Washington, D.C., but in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, where he vacationed with his mother during the summer months. Dunbar High School music teacher Henry Lee Grant gave him private lessons in harmony. With the additional guidance of Washington pianist and band leader Oliver “Doc” Perry, Ellington learned to read sheet music, project a professional style, and improve his technique. Ellington was also inspired by his first encounters with stride pianists James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts. Later in New York he took advice from Will Marion Cook, Fats Waller, and Sidney Bechet. Ellington started to play gigs in cafés and clubs in and around Washington, D.C. and his attachment grew to be so strong that he turned down an art scholarship to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1916. Three months before graduating he dropped out of Armstrong Manual Training School, where he was studying commercial art.
Working as a freelance sign-painter from 1917, he began assembling groups to play for dances, and in 1919 met drummer Sonny Greer from New Jersey who encouraged Ellington’s ambition to become a professional musician. Through his day job, Ellington’s entrepreneurial side came out: when a customer would ask him to make a sign for a dance or party, he would ask them if they had musical entertainment; if not, Ellington would ask if he could play for them. He also had a messenger job with the U.S. Navy and State Departments. Ellington moved out of his parents’ home and bought his own as he became a successful pianist. At first, he played in other ensembles, and in late 1917 formed his first group, “The Duke’s Serenaders” (“Colored Syncopators”, his telephone directory advertising proclaimed). He was not only a member, but also the booking agent. His first play date was at the True Reformer’s Hall, where he took home 75 cents. Ellington played throughout the Washington, D.C. area and into Virginia for private society balls and embassy parties. The band included childhood friend Otto Hardwick, who started on string bass, then moved to C-melody sax and finally settled on alto saxophone; Arthur Whetsol on trumpet; Elmer Snowden on banjo; and Sonny Greer on drums. The band thrived, performing for both African-American and white audiences, a rarity at the time.
When his drummer Sonny Greer was invited to join the Wilber Sweatman Orchestra in New York City, Ellington made the fateful decision to leave behind his successful career in Washington, D.C., and move to Harlem, becoming one of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. New dance crazes like the Charleston emerged in Harlem, as well as African-American musical theater, including Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. After the young musicians left the Sweatman Orchestra to strike out on their own, they found an emerging jazz scene that was highly competitive and hard to crack. They hustled pool by day and played whatever gigs they could find. The young band met stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith who introduced them to the scene and gave them some money. They played at rent-house parties for income. After a few months, the young musicians returned to Washington, D.C., feeling discouraged.
In June 1923, a gig in Atlantic City, New Jersey, led to a play date at the prestigious Exclusive Club in Harlem. This was followed in September 1923 by a move to the Hollywood Club – 49th and Broadway – and a four-year engagement, which gave Ellington a solid artistic base. He was known to play the bugle at the end of each performance. The group was initially called Elmer Snowden and his Black Sox Orchestra and had seven members, including trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley. They renamed themselves “The Washingtonians”. Snowden left the group in early 1924 and Ellington took over as bandleader. After a fire, the club was re-opened as the Club Kentucky (often referred to as the “Kentucky Club”).
Ellington made eight records in 1924, receiving composing credit on three including “Choo Choo”. In 1925, Ellington contributed four songs to Chocolate Kiddies starring Lottie Gee and Adelaide Hall, an all-African-American revue which introduced European audiences to African-American styles and performers. Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra grew to a group of ten players; they developed their own sound by displaying the non-traditional expression of Ellington’s arrangements, the street rhythms of Harlem, and the exotic-sounding trombone growls and wah-wahs, high-squealing trumpets, and sultry saxophone blues licks of the band members. For a short time soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet played with them, imparting his propulsive swing and superior musicianship to the young band members.
In October 1926, Ellington made a career advancing agreement with agent-publisher Irving Mills, giving Mills a 45% interest in Ellington’s future. Mills had an eye for new talent and early on published compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen. After recording a handful of acoustic titles during 1924-1926, Ellington’s signing with Mills allowed him to record prolifically, although sometimes he recorded different versions of the same tune. Mills often took a co-composer credit. From the beginning of their relationship, Mills arranged recording sessions on nearly every label including Brunswick, Victor, Columbia, OKeh, Pathê (and its Perfect label), the ARC/Plaza group of labels (Oriole, Domino, Jewel, Banner) and their dime-store labels (Cameo, Lincoln, Romeo), Hit of the Week, and Columbia’s cheaper labels (Harmony, Diva, Velvet Tone, Clarion) labels which gave Ellington popular recognition. On OKeh, his records were usually issued as “The Harlem Footwarmers”, while the Brunswick’s were usually issued as The Jungle Band. “Whoopee Makers” and the “Ten Black Berries” were other pseudonyms.
In September 1927, King Oliver turned down a regular booking for his group as the house band at Harlem’s Cotton Club; the offer passed to Ellington after Jimmy McHugh suggested him and Mills arranged an audition. Ellington had to increase from a six to eleven-piece group to meet the requirements of the Cotton Club’s management for the audition, and the engagement finally began on December 4. With a weekly radio broadcast, the Cotton Club’s exclusively white and wealthy clientele poured in nightly to see them. At the Cotton Club, Ellington’s group performed all the music for the revues, which mixed comedy, dance numbers, vaudeville, burlesque, music, and illegal alcohol. The musical numbers were composed by Jimmy McHugh and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (later Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), with some Ellington originals mixed in. Weekly radio broadcasts from the club gave Ellington national exposure, while Ellington also recorded Fields-JMcHugh and Fats Waller-Andy Razaf songs.
Although trumpeter Bubber Miley was a member of the orchestra for only a short period, he had a major influence on Ellington’s sound. An early exponent of growl trumpet, his style changed the “sweet” dance band sound of the group to one that was hotter, which contemporaries termed “jungle” style. In October 1927, Ellington and his Orchestra recorded several compositions with Adelaide Hall. One side in particular, “Creole Love Call” became a worldwide sensation and gave both Ellington and Hall their first hit record. Miley had composed most of “Creole Love Call” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”. An alcoholic, Miley had to leave the band before they gained wider fame. He died in 1932 at the age of 29, but he was an important influence on Cootie Williams, who replaced him.
Ellington led the orchestra by conducting from the keyboard using piano cues and visual gestures; very rarely did he conduct using a baton. As a bandleader, Ellington was not a strict disciplinarian; he maintained control of his orchestra with a combination of charm, humor, flattery, and astute psychology. A complex, private person, he revealed his feelings to only his closest intimates and effectively used his public persona to deflect attention away from himself. While the band’s United States audience remained mainly African-American in this period, the Ellington orchestra had a huge following overseas, exemplified by the success of their trip to England in 1933 and their 1934 visit to the European mainland. The English visit saw Ellington win praise from members of the “serious” music community, including composer Constant Lambert, which gave a boost to Ellington’s interest in composing longer works. Those longer pieces had already begun to appear. He had composed and recorded Creole Rhapsody as early as 1931 (issued as both sides of a 12″ record for Victor and both sides of a 10″ record for Brunswick), and a tribute to his mother, “Reminiscing in Tempo”, took four 10″ record sides to record in 1935 after her death in that year. Symphony in Black (also 1935), a short film, featured his extended piece ‘A Rhapsody of Negro Life’. It introduced Billie Holiday, and won an Academy Award as the best musical short subject. Ellington and his Orchestra also appeared in the features Murder at the Vanities and Belle of the Nineties.
On the band’s tour through the segregated South in 1934, they avoided some of the traveling difficulties of African-Americans by touring in private railcars. These provided easy accommodations, dining, and storage for equipment while avoiding the indignities of segregated facilities. Competition was intensifying though, as swing bands like Benny Goodmans, began to receive popular attention. Swing dancing became a youth phenomenon, particularly with white college audiences, and “danceability” drove record sales and bookings. Jukeboxes proliferated nationwide, spreading the gospel of “swing”. Ellington’s band could certainly swing, but their strengths were mood and nuance, and richness of composition; hence his statement “jazz is music; swing is business”.
From 1936, Ellington began to make recordings of smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his then-15-man orchestra and he composed pieces intended to feature specific instrumentalist, as with “Jeep’s Blues” for Johnny Hodges, “Yearning for Love” for Lawrence Brown, “Trumpet in Spades” for Rex Stewart, “Echoes of Harlem” for Cootie Williams and “Clarinet Lament” for Barney Bigard. These small groups within Ellington’s band recorded on Mills’ Variety label. In 1937, Ellington returned to the Cotton Club which had relocated to the mid-town Theater District. In the summer of that year, his father died, and due to many expenses, Ellington’s finances were tight, although his situation improved the following year.
Billy Strayhorn, originally hired as a lyricist, began his association with Ellington in 1939. Nicknamed “Swee’ Pea” for his mild manner, Strayhorn soon became a vital member of the Ellington organization. Ellington showed great fondness for Strayhorn and never failed to speak glowingly of the man and their collaborative working relationship, “my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine”. Strayhorn, with his training in classical music, not only contributed his original lyrics and music, but also arranged and polished many of Ellington’s works, becoming a second Ellington or “Duke’s doppelganger”. It was not uncommon for Strayhorn to fill in for Duke, whether in conducting or rehearsing the band, playing the piano, on stage, and in the recording studio. The 1930s ended with a very successful European tour just as World War II loomed in Europe.
Some of the musicians who joined Ellington at this at time created a sensation in their own right. The short-lived Jimmy Blanton transformed the use of double bass in jazz, allowing it to function as a solo rather than a rhythm instrument alone. Terminal illness forced him to leave by late 1941 after only about two years. Ben Webster, the Orchestra’s first regular tenor saxophonist, whose main tenure with Ellington spanned 1939 to 1943, started a rivalry with Johnny Hodges as the Orchestra’s foremost voice in the sax section. Ellington’s long-term aim though was to extend the jazz form from that three-minute limit, of which he was an acknowledged master. While he had composed and recorded some extended pieces before, such works now became a regular feature of Ellington’s output. In this, he was helped by Strayhorn, who had enjoyed a more thorough training in the forms associated with classical music than Ellington. The first of these, “Black, Brown, and Beige” (1943), was dedicated to telling the story of African-Americans, and the place of slavery and the church in their history. Ellington debuted Black, Brown and Beige in Carnegie Hall on January 23, 1943, beginning an annual series of concerts there over the next four years. While some jazz musicians had played at Carnegie Hall before, none had performed anything as elaborate as Ellington’s work. Unfortunately, starting a regular pattern, Ellington’s longer works were generally not well received.
A partial exception was Jump for Joy, a full-length musical based on themes of African-American identity, debuted on July 10, 1941 at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles. Hollywood luminaries like actors John Garfield and Mickey Rooney invested in the production, and Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles offered to direct. At one performance though, Garfield insisted Herb Jeffries, who is light skinned, should wear make-up. Ellington objected in the interval, and compared Jeffries to Al Jolson. The change was reverted, and the singer later commented that the audience must have thought he was an entirely different character in the second half of the show. Although it had sold-out performances, and received positive reviews, it ran for only 122 performances until September 29, 1941, with a brief revival in November of that year. Its subject matter did not make it appealing to Broadway; Ellington had unfulfilled plans to take it there. Despite this disappointment, a Broadway production of Ellington’s Beggar’s Holiday, his sole book musical, premiered on December 23, 1946 under the direction of Nicholas Ray.
The settlement of the first recording ban of 1942–43, leading to an increase in royalties paid to musicians, had a serious effect on the financial viability of the big bands, including Ellington’s Orchestra. His income as a songwriter ultimately subsidized it. Although he always spent lavishly and drew a respectable income from the Orchestra’s operations, the band’s income often just covered expenses. The music industry’s focus was shifting away from the big bands to the work of solo vocalists such as the young Frank Sinatra gaining popularity. Ellington’s wordless vocal feature “Transblucency” (1946) with Kay Davis was not going to have a similar reach. The new small-group form of jazz, bebop allowed club owners of smaller venues to draw in the jazz audience at a fraction of the cost of hiring a big band. In 1951, Ellington suffered a significant loss of personnel: Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, and most importantly Johnny Hodges left to pursue other ventures, although only Greer was a permanent departee. Drummer Louie Bellson replaced Greer, and his “Skin Deep” was a hit for Ellington. Tenor player Paul Gonsalves had joined in December 1950 after periods with Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie and stayed for the rest of his life, while Clark Terry joined in November 1951.
Although Ellington’s career was generally at a low ebb in the early 1950s, Ellington’s reputation did not suffer in comparison with younger figures of the time. Andre Previn said in 1952: “You know, Stan Kenton can stand in front of a thousand fiddles and a thousand brass and make a dramatic gesture and every studio arranger can nod his head and say, ‘‘Oh, yes, that’s done like this.’’ But Duke merely lifts his finger, three horns make a sound, and I don’t know what it is!” However by 1955, after three years of recording for Capitol, Ellington lacked a regular recording affiliation for the first time in over a decade.
Ellington’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956 returned him to wider prominence and exposed him to new audiences. The concert made international headlines, led to one of only four Time magazine cover stories dedicated to a jazz musician (Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, and Wynton Marsalis are the others) and resulted in an album produced by George Avakian that would become the best-selling long-playing recording of Ellington’s career. Ironically though, much of the music on the vinyl LP was, in effect, “simulated”, with only about 40% actually from the concert itself. According to Avakian, Ellington was dissatisfied with aspects of the performance and felt the musicians had been under rehearsed. The band assembled the next day to re-record several of the numbers with the addition of artificial crowd noise, none of which was disclosed to purchasers of the album. Not until 1999 was the concert recording properly released for the first time. The revived attention brought about by the Newport appearance should not have surprised anyone, Johnny Hodges had returned the previous year, and Ellington’s collaboration with Strayhorn had been renewed around the same time, under terms more amenable to the younger man. The original Ellington at Newport album was the first release in a new recording contract with Columbia Records which yielded several years of recording stability, mainly under producer Irving Townsend, who coaxed both commercial and artistic productions from Ellington.
Ellington at this time (with Strayhorn) began to work directly on scoring for film soundtracks, in particular Anatomy of a Murder (1959), with James Stewart, in which Ellington appeared fronting a roadhouse combo, and Paris Blues (1961), which featured Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as jazz musicians. Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker concludes that the work of Billy Strayhorn and Ellington in Anatomy of a Murder is “indispensable, [although] . . . too sketchy to rank in the top echelon among Ellington-Strayhorn masterpiece suites like Such Sweet Thunder and The Far East Suite, but its most inspired moments are their equal.” Film historians have recognized the soundtrack “as a landmark – the first significant Hollywood film music by African Americans comprising non-diegetic music, that is, music whose source is not visible or implied by action in the film, like an on-screen band.” The score avoided the cultural stereotypes which previously characterized jazz scores and rejected a strict adherence to visuals in ways that presaged the New Wave cinema of the ’60s”. Ellington and Strayhorn, always looking for new musical territory, produced suites for John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
In the early 1960s, Ellington embraced recording with artists who had been friendly rivals in the past, or were younger musicians who focused on later styles. The Ellington and Count Basie orchestras recorded together. During a period when he was between recording contracts, he made records with Louis Armstrong (Roulette), Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane (both for Impulse) and participated in a session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach which produced the Money Jungle album (my personal favorite Ellington LP).
The writing and playing of music is a matter of intent…. You can’t just throw a paint brush against the wall and call whatever happens art. My music fits the tonal personality of the player. I think too strongly in terms of altering my music to fit the performer to be impressed by accidental music. You can’t take doodling seriously.
Ellington was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1965, but was turned down. His reaction at 67 years old: “Fate is being kind to me. Fate doesn’t want me to be famous too young.” The Pulitzer Prize for music was eventually awarded posthumously in 1999. Ellington continued to make vital and innovative recordings, including The Far East Suite (1966), the New Orleans Suite (1970), and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse (1971), much of it inspired by his world tours. It was during this time that Ellington recorded his only album with Frank Sinatra, entitled Francis A. & Edward K. (1967).
Ellington was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966. He was later awarded several other prizes, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, an Honorary PhD from the Berklee College of Music in 1971, and the Legion of Honor by France in 1973, the highest civilian honors in each country. Although he made two more stage appearances before his death, Ellington performed what is considered his final “full” concert in a ballroom at Northern Illinois University on March 20, 1974. Ellington died from lung cancer and pneumonia on May 24, 1974, a month after his 75th birthday. His last words were, “Music is how I live, why I live and how I will be remembered.” At his funeral, attended by over 12,000 people at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Ella Fitzgerald summed up the occasion, “It’s a very sad day. A genius has passed.” He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York City.
Duke Ellington is too often forgotten in modern conversations about the world’s greatest musicians. While we’ve canonized (and rightly so) musicians like Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Nina Simone for their role in the civil rights struggle, you forget that Duke Ellington was a black man playing to mixed audiences decades before any of them hit the road. Not only that, but Ellington was a massive commercial success for the majority of his career. He’s given credit as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, but Ellington was more than that in terms of his impact on jazz. While Jellroll Morton is the one who first put jazz into composition, Ellington made jazz composition an artform. He provided elegance to a genre built on free flowing improvisation. In many ways, I believe this is why he sets the pace for the legacy of all great New York musicians. From Lou Reed to Talking Heads to Sonic Youth, New York is known for providing that perfect balance of chaos and structure; the wild and the elegant. That is Duke’s legacy. Long may he reign.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
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