There are different categories on Among Friends reflecting the diversity of interests that the blog covers. One of the most important areas is music. At present according to what has been effectively tagged, 1 in 3 of the entries on here will be about music. That’s a whole lot of music going on. So as we celebrate ten years of the blog it’s worth sharing ten of my favourite musical influences. These are not the greatest musical personalities of all time – Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and the like will not feature on this list (although there are a few significant music types who will crop up.) More than anything music has appealed to me from my earliest memories of life and the list reflects the degree of influence a range of artists and creators have had on me over the year.
So here are my ten favourite music personalities. This list is not in any order and is always subject to change.
OK, so I said this list wouldn’t include big popular acts, but let’s face it there is still not a band in the history of popular music that is bigger in influence than The Beatles. Its over fifty years since their first major hit record and their music still has its effect. To be fair to this list I am including the individual careers of particular Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison. Two of these could well feature in their own right in this list for the huge influence they have had on my listening over the year.
As a group, though, I particularly found their material from Rubber Soul of great interest. Albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abbey Road used to be staple listening for much of my late teenage years – and this was decades after they had split. The songwriting, the arrangements, the vocals, the way their albums were organised all of that captured my interest in a way that little else had done before in the music world. To know that these were the creations of the minds of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison made me in awe of them. They more than anyone else got me intrigued at the making of music from how to make a song to how to play instruments, to how to arrange vocals and all of the other stuff that makes the creative process so fascinating.
Then there was the story of the dynamics of the group – I say story, if there is ever a singular approach to telling their story. All the intrigue into why they wanted to get into the industry, why they stopped playing live concerts, what influences others had on them individually and as a group. The demise of the group and the squabbles and efforts for a reunion before Lennon was killed.
I remember hearing some Paul McCartney music at first and it was a friend who made the connection for me between him and the Beatles. Then I got into some of the solo stuff from the two other listed Beatles too. Nothing against Ringo, I just found the other guys had a more interesting set of songs. A lot of my appreciation for music comes from these four men from Liverpool and not to recognise that would be a crying shame.
When putting this list together I found it interesting to note the lack of many female personalities. I am not too fussed about that really, it’s just my tastes at the end of the day. Those that were the popular types of the day like your Madonna, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion and so forth just left me nonplussed. I acknowledged their capacity to gain a large following and their talent in whatever area to make the most of whatever it was they had, but for me, I just never found them of interest.
There is something about Chaka Khan, though. First thing the vocals. She can blast it out with the best of them – really yell and holler like she’s a siren and failure to acknowledge that could lead to your death. Her range, however, could also go soft and vulnerable in a very alluring manner. Not that she was singing you to bed, there was so much life in her songs that all that kind of stuff could wait.
Her versatility around different music styles is something underrated with her that I appreciated. I loved her in regular pop, I loved her in RnB, I loved her singing the blues, I loved her in jazz, even if she had to do some heavier rock material, it was water off a duck’s back to her. That liberating woman theme ‘I’m Every Woman’ is a song that typifies there are tunes that only she can sing and do the utmost justice whatever the efforts of the likes of the Mariah Carey-types, Mary J Blige-kinds and such. They don’t have to say they owe anything to Chaka, but whenever I hear her and them, she blows them away every time.
As a conveyor of music through her being, I find Chaka Khan to be one of the most charismatic, engaging, soulful and mesmerising vocalists ever. The power in her singing meant she could convey enough of her story through song, without really needing to go all biopic on her. I am glad that she has stood the test of time in terms of the various challenges that have attempted to ravage her. She more than most female music personalities gets my rating as a great influence.
This one was a bit weird for me too. Weird in the sense that there was nothing obvious that would lead me to pay attention to him. I had heard some of his stuff before I took more of an interest in him. The thing about some musical influences is their timing. When I heard him before, I did not pay him that much attention and never pursued the matter.
There was a time in my life, though, where his music took on a greater significance. There were the nature of the songs themselves. I regard them as fun, life-affirming or catchy songs. There are tracks like Roof Garden and Mornin’ that are as good as a family song as you’re going to come across. There are some tunes that I love like Easy which are so cool to me that years later I still love hearing them.
Then there are songs like I Will Be Here For You which have great value to me because of the time of life I was in when those songs came to me. They had profound meaning to me at a time when I could have done with those profound meanings! Then there’s Jarreau himself as a performer and vocalist. More than most he understands his voice as an instrument and so can play with it whether in vocalising or in scatting or otherwise having fun with it to bring across whatever he wants to bring across. To say he’s a master vocalist is an understatement. I hear him and I am unsure whether that level of talent could ever be passed on to anyone else, so unique is the gift.
There are no singers like him and that on top of everything else makes him my guy when it comes to acknowledging great singing talent.
Earth, Wind and Fire
The group dynamic in creating music is a fascinating one. It’s something to appreciate the talents of others and blend them together effectively over a number of years. Among the number of reasons why I grew to really love the music of Earth, Wind and Fire was because of that ability to produce music as a collective to such a high standard over a decent number of years.
Their approach of making music that made you think and dance at the same time was great. Their commitment to knowing what they do well and then continuing to do better for the best part of a decade in that golden era of the 70’s was nothing short of remarkable. Watching some of their concerts on video and listening to their music it strongly comes across as a team effort – the collective strength being greater than the sum of their individual parts. I loved the variety of sound environments they could evoke with their music, warm and intimate or large and expansive, they were just able to make the groove flow through different means and at their peak were simply the best music collective on the planet.
Their list of great tunes is not a short one: I defy anyone not to at least tap their feet to September. A track like After The Love Has Gone is a tune that couples smooch and dance to even though the content isn’t exactly that promising for a relationship. Another romantic track they excelled in was Can’t Hide Love – there’s a tune you can play this track and it will set the mood. Therein lies the great quality of EWF – their music could set the mood – you have a desire to get active and doing something, you slap on a tune like Serpentine Fire or Boogie Wonderland. You want to take things slow and easy and please your lover, then you get a piece like Reasons and defy that lover not to be putty in your hands! They didn’t need to be salacious in their suggestions. It wasn’t about celebrating the erotic to celebrate love. They may be heavily associated with the disco era, but they weren’t the cheesy aspects of that and they lead the way as well as beings true masters of the funk genre
Gaye was a massive influence in my appreciation of music. Massive. There was a time in my life where for a few brief years I was taken up with him as a personality and as a creative musical force. His story and the music he produced had me on tenterhooks and this was years after his death.
As with another Motown favourite that we’ll get to later, I particularly liked Marvin when he got to do his own stuff. When he began to stretch his own abilities and produced that landmark album What’s Going On, that is what really got my interest. He was no longer a part of a pop machine that produced on tap to a particular standard. Here was his own stuff, done his own way, expressing his inner anguishes of what he experienced and these he had written himself. That was gripping stuff to get my head around. His songwriting ability was outstanding, his appreciation for musicianship was on par. Of course, however, what makes Marvin Gaye stand out from his peers was his voice. What a voice. Undoubtedly one of the greatest singers of all time.
The conflicts that affected his life became more pronounced in the works he produced and that whole sensual/spiritual thing he worked out was truly fascinating to hear played out in his music. That he was infused with a gospel vibe and then got to bring in the best of rhythm and blues with that soul thing and came up with tracks that burned themselves in the memory. The way he put those backing vocals to be such a terrific audio accompaniment to his lead vocal got me scrambling to hear the tracks again and again. Even those backing vocals were never wasted, they were not just decoration, they enriched and heightened the listening experience whether in simplicity or interweaved complexity. The man was a master of his craft.
It is a tragedy that those challenges with drugs and the troubled soul that underpinned never lead him to stay on top of things. Yet Marvin Gaye has left a rich legacy for those who love music to consider.
Honourable mentions: George Martin, Paul Simon, Bill Champlin, Roberta Flack, James Taylor, Lalah Hathaway, Michael McDonald, David Bowie, Prince, Toto, Billy Joel, Minnie Riperton, Steely Dan, Lionel Richie, D’Angelo, Ella Fitzgerald, Jacob Collier and Elvis Costello.
C. L. J. Dryden