My Tom Cruise moment came not in tighty-whities and stocking feet with an air mic performing Bob
Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll,” but pajama-clad in the bathroom mirror playing Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 on my air violin.
Perhaps I was raised to be a snob. There was jazz and there was classical music in my family home. My sister once commandeered my father’s stereo to play a Beach Boys album she had acquired. His angered response was to buy her a record player so he would never again have to hear “Surfin’ Safari.” Wanting a record player of my own, I bought The Shape of Jazz to Come by Ornette Coleman and had it playing when Dad came home one evening. Manhattan in hand, he announced liking it well enough for me not to get my own record player.
I readily admit to my haughty ways. As a panelist on a PBS television show in Los Angeles I reminded the rock critic with whom I was sharing the sound stage that while he covered sociological phenomena, I covered art, i.e., jazz.
Though I draw the line at country music, which is actually named in my permanent health record as an allergy, I have had moments of great enjoyment and satisfaction with so-called popular music. As a drummer I played a lot of rock, folk and blues. It seems that my interest in much of that music today provides a sense of nostalgia; I’ve listened to little pop music since sometime in the mid-‘70s.
Assembling a Top-20 list has been an interesting exercise because at the core of each selection is a sense of art that transcends its category. Much of it reflects both the jazz and classical music on which I was raised. After a couple of weeks revisiting the following albums I realized that to a great extent, they reflect the various parts of my youth. And most of the songs are really just fun to sing along with.
In no particular order, the following represent my Top-20.
Traffic > The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (1971) A British band led by Steve Winwood and Jim Capaldi, Traffic featured different forms and offshoots of rock including jazz rock and progressive rock. Drummer Jim Gordon and saxophonist Chris Wood enhance the effort.
Jefferson Airplane > Surrealistic Pillow (1967) The quintessential work of psychedelic rock represented the 1960s counterculture era—a San Francisco bohemian scene transitioning from the ‘50s Beats to the ‘60s Haight-Ashbury counterculture. The album was the first album by a band featuring Grace Slick and Marty Balin.
James Taylor > Sweet Baby James (1970) If you were alive in 1970, James Taylor probably played a significant part of your personal soundtrack. I know he did for mine. He has a natural sense of phrasing—the hallmark of any singer—and sincerity in his interpretation of his, and others’, songs.
The Beatles > Rubber Soul (1965) A mix of pop, soul and folk musical styles characterize what I find to be the band’s best effort. Period. For my ears, the album was transformational in taking a pop group to a level of conceptual art that would pave the way for Sgt. Peppers and the White Album.
Laura Nyro > Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) Elton John was exquisite in his assessment of the singer-songwriter Laura Nyro: “The soul, the passion, just the out and out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came like nothing I’ve heard before.” “Eli’s Comin’,”” Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues” are tunes we all know and love.
Temptations > Anthology (1978) Groove and harmony define the best street-corner group there ever was. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “My Girl,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Just My Imagination.” Any questions?
Crosby, Stills & Nash > Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969) I had listened to this album a dozen times before seeing the group make its concert debut at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on August 16, 1969. The vocal folk-rock supergroup made up of singer-songwriters David Crosby and Stephen Stills and English singer-songwriter Graham Nash, created a catalog of songs noted for their intricate vocal harmonies and political activism. I found “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” to be an astonishing feat of artistry.
Lou Reed > Transformer (1972) I lived on New York’s Lower East Side (7th and D) at the dawn of the punk-rock era, though nobody knew it as that at the time. The Fugs, the avant-rock group whose specialty seemed to center around vulgarity, worked regularly at a joint on St. Mark’s Place. Lou Reed was the Prince of the East Village though, his songs conjuring images unique to the time and place, none more so than “Walk On the Wild Side,” a song depicting a world of transsexuality, drug addiction, male prostitution and oral sex.
Stevie Wonder > Songs in the Key of Life (1976) Soul, funk, R&B…whatever you want to call it, Songs in the Key of Life is masterful piece of musical effort. “Sir Duke” remains a favorite cut.
Joni Mitchell > Court and Spark (1974) Her most successful album shows both a writing and singing talent that is hers alone. It is a folk-rock endeavor with loads of jazz inflections that she would use from this point on. “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris” are ageless classics.
Siegle-Schwall > Say Siegle-Schwall (1967) A Chicago-based blues band that never went too far but made memorable music.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band > East-West (1966) This seminal album reflects a sense of jazz-infused blues from the modal style of Miles Davis, to the hard bop of Nat Adderley (“Work Song”) and John Coltrane’s Indian raga. Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop play key roles, as does keyboardist Mark Naftalin, right down to Muddy Waters’s “Two Trains Running.”
Mother Earth > Living with the Animals (1969) An American roots band, Mother Earth displayed influences from gospel, r&b, jazz, country and even a touch of psychedelia. Singer Tracy Nelson lent an earthy quality to this band that had once featured Boz Skaggs, guitarist Mike Bloomfield and keyboardist Mark Naftalin.
Marvin Gaye > What’s Going On (1971) If Marvin Gaye had recorded nothing else, he would still stand tall among the giants of soul. This album was a concept album in which thematic ideas were presented in a song cycle. The album is something of a social protest, its ideas centered around narrative of hatred, suffering, drug abuse, poverty and injustice in the Vietnam War era. He was once quoted as saying he wanted to “write songs that reach the souls of the people.”
Donny Hathaway > Donny Hathaway (1971) If singing were a cure for manic-depression this Chicago-born singer might still be with us. He was 33 when he took his life, but he left this incredible album of pop, gospel and soul tunes that do no less than astound. The most prominent of the covers were his rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” and a gospel-inflected cover of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Giving Up”, written by Van McCoy.
Seatrain > Seatrain (1969) An earthy roots band that deftly fused rock with bluegrass. It’s a feel-good album, with violinist Richard Greene adding vibrant colors to a list of tunes that includes Lowell George’s “I’m Willing.”
Atomic Rooster > In Hearing of Atomic Rooster (1971) A British hard rock band with a revolving door of personnel that included drummers Carl Palmer and Ginger Baker, and singer Vincent Crane, created a music of intense excitement. Personally, I loved the drum tracks.
The Rolling Stones get two spots on my list: Let It Bleed (1969) Beggar’s Banquet (1968). From the first album, “Gimme Shelter” is simply the best rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded. It is an incendiary anthem that speaks to its time. From Beggar’s Banquet comes “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” two more classics from the quintessential rock band.
The Band > The Band (1969) On its own, after being the backup band for Bob Dylan, The Band offered an appealing blend of folk music and early rock and roll. Each of its members—Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm—brought a certain virtuosity to a unique musical form.
The problem with lists is not what’s included, but what isn’t. For that I apologize to scores of pop artists who have brought joy to all of us.
Photo montage by Courtney A. Liska