Act Two…or Three…or…: The remaking of an artist

November 8, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

Tony Sarabia:

So now that President Barack Obama has been reelected to a second term, how will his final four years in the White House unfold? What will his ‘second act’ look like?

And what sort of reinvention will defeated Tea Party Congressman Joe Walsh undertake? The political landscape is littered with stories of reinvention, which caused Morning Shift intern Miles Doornbos to start wondering about musical second acts--good and bad.

A quick glance at the history of pop, soul, jazz and other musical styles reveals some fascinating examples of artists who, either out of commercial necessity, creative frustration, an epiphany or a combination of these and other factors, have taken a turn in the music they create.

Bob Dylan’s music went thru a number of transformations; who could forget the Saved album?

Frank Sinatra’s Capitol years presented a mature, almost brooding, yet relaxed swing that was antithetical to his early work with Columbia. And of course, who can forget the Jefferson Starship? What the heck was that all about? Talk about a crash landing.

Thursday's Morning Shift takes a look at some of mine and Richard Steele’s artist reinventions: from Miles to Snoop, Luther to Bowie.

I want to start with a man who produced one of his greatest works after once asking himself, “with the world exploding around me, how I am supposed to keep singing love songs?”

There has been so much written about Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterpiece What's Going On and the story behind the recording is documented as part of the NPR 100 series. Gaye composed he song "What’s Going On" in 1970. Motown chief Berry Gordy didn’t want to release the song saying the jazz sound was outdated. Gaye told him he wouldn’t record anything unless Gordy released the song. He did, it reached number one on the R&B charts, number two on the Billboard pop chart and sold over two million copies. Not bad for a song that had an "outdated" sound. The album that followed--which Gordy warned would displease his fan base--had Gaye writing about issues of the day, such as the lingering Vietnam War and the environment. And it was not only Gaye’s but R&B’s first song cycle album; songs segued into each other, adding an overall narrative. "What’s Happening Brother" is the second track on What’s Going On and was dedicated to his younger brother, Frankie, who was returning from a three-year duty in Vietnam.

There’s a reason why David Bowie was once referred to as the chameleon; he’s transformed himself musically perhaps more than any other pop star. Not long after releasing his Thin White Duke era Station to Station in 1976, Bowie moved to Berlin and lived in a flat above a mechanic’s garage. He was looking for a bit of anonymity and to kick his cocaine habit. During that time he became more interested in Krautrock, classical music and post-modernist art. Those three endeavors fed into what would later be called The Berlin Era, with three albums that would swing from minimalist Philip Glass style sounds to Kraftwerk inspired dance rock and hints of the not yet realized New Wave/ Electronic/New Romantic sound which owed a great debt to this Bowie period.

Low was the first album from this era and is by far the most experimental, at least on side two of the LP. "Weeping Wall" is an instrumental in which Bowie plays all the instruments including xylophone, vibraphone and synthesizer. He also adds some eerie sounding wordless vocals. At first listen, you might think the melody sounds a bit like Scarborough Fair; that was intentional. Bowie once said the song was intended to evoke the misery of the Berlin Wall.

Okay, I’ll say it upfront; I never really got into Snoop’s music although I won’t deny his talent. This is a rather dramatic turn for Snoop; he takes on the name Snoop Lion, embraces the Rastafarian faith and embarks on a reggae album.  Now whether Snoop is serious or not (he also says he’s Bob Marley reincarnated), the music isn’t a fluff attempt a reggae; Snoop dives into the one drop sound and the result is soulful, playful and radio friendly. This is music from skanking. "La La La" is the only single released so far from his forthcoming reggae album Reincarnated.

Damon Albarn knows a thing or two about reggae and dub, having incorporated them into the music of his band Gorillaz. Albarn first came to prominence as part of the Brit indie band Blur in 1988 and has since expressed his musical creativity in ways that has put him outside his rock comfort zone but usually with more than a modicum of success at least artistically. He’s played music with Malian artists, added electronica to the music of the Democratic Republic of Congo and helped write a Chinese opera. Here he teams up with Afrobeat drum master Tony Allen and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea for further explorations in African funk…and beyond.  Rocket Juice & The Moon is Albarn’s latest project (he’s also done work with Chinese opera), and it’s a heady mix of basson drum, jazz, afro beat, Sun Ra, and space funk. The guests are as mixed as the sounds: Eryka Badu, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest and Mailian guitarist and vocalist Fatoumata Diawara, who teams up wioth Albarn on the tune "Benko." So with music from Kinshasa , Mali and China under his belt, one has to wonder what’s the next act for Albarn.

Richard Steele:

This is an amazing story about three African-American operatic tenors with a background in classical music. The idea to bring Victor Trent Cook, Rodrick Dixon and Thomas Young together was the brainchild of Broadway producer Marion Caffey. Caffey was responsible for bringing Three Mo’ Tenors to PBS as part of the Great Performances series. The idea was to celebrate the African-American tenor voice by showcasing performances that included opera, jazz, blues, spirituals, gospel, R&B and Broadway tunes. From the moment the show aired during a 2001 pledge drive, it became a phenomenal PBS favorite, and its three stars became known across America. This is a medley of R&B classics starting with the track “Love Train.”       

Phil Collins is a multi-talented English singer-songwriter, drummer and actor born in 1951.His showbiz career began as a child actor on the London stage when he appeared in a production of Oliver. He also began to play drums at an early age. Over the course of time, music became his full-time pursuit. He played, recorded and toured with a local band in the late ‘60s. The next move was to answer an ad by a group called Genesis that was looking for a new drummer. At that time, Peter Gabriel was the group's lead singer;  Collins did backup vocals and drummed for the group  for about five years. When Gabriel left, Collins became the lead singer. That’s when his career really started to take flight.

It seems he was always re-inventing himself:  He even played jazz and produced some R&B tracks. His first solo album was Face Value, and he said his divorce influenced the project. The track called “If Leaving Me Is Easy” might be a testament to that.               

This is a vocal version of one of the tracks from the trend-setting Bitches Brew album from Miles Davis. This recording makes a connection between the two extraordinary musicians:  Davis was a brilliant jazz innovator who never stopped inventing, and Cassandra Wilson is a contemporary vocalist who often defies musical categories and is not afraid to take chances. Davis’ jazz trumpet sought out new territory in 1970 with the release of Bitches Brew; That album turned completely away from the be-bop form of jazz from the 1940s and 50s, which Davis had been closely associated with, and took jazz in a whole new direction. Wilson was able to capture some of that momentum vocally on the Traveling Miles tribute album released in 1999. The first track on this recording, “Run the Voodoo Down,”  is a nod to the classic Bitches Brew package.