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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2005/02/04
by Mike Gruenberg


Had Elvis Presley remained alive, he would have been 70 years old this month. Hard to imagine what he might like be if we still had The King with us. I imagine that if he were still around, would he be wearing orthopedic blue suede shoes. Would he have eliminated fried foods from his diet? Would he be exercising vigorously? Probably not, because after all, he was and always will be The King and The King does what he wants. It’s been many years since Elvis died, but his memory is as bright as ever. It’s tough to see our rock ‘n’ roll heroes get old, but it’s even worse when they pass on.
This past year was a tough year for music since we lost so many people in so many areas of the music industry. Perhaps the most visible loss was the passing of the great, Ray Charles. No amount of words can aptly describe the influence that this man has had on every aspect of music. Whether is was performing, writing, producing, acting or even running his own record label, Ray did it with style and grace. Virtually every person who has a music collection inevitably will have at least one 45, LP, 8-Track, cassette, reel-to-reel or CD by Ray Charles or have in that same collection music performed by another artist doing Ray Charles material. So complete was his influence that generations to come will listen to his music, see his image on TV and the movies and read about him in countless books.
In the rock music world, we lost Johnny Ramone of the ground breaking punk rock group, The Ramones. Formed in the 70’s, the group from Forest Hills, New York not related to each other and taking their name from noted record producer, Phil Ramone took the punk rock world by storm. They played a frenetic brand of rock at venues like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City in New York. They went on to tour the world and achieve an incredible degree of notoriety. Punk rock groups that succeeded the Ramones have to be grateful to them for being the pioneers of this brand of rock music. With all of their album releases, The Ramones had only two albums to make the Top 50, no Top 40 hits and yet their influence was so complete that their names are synonymous as the leaders of the punk rock movement.
This column is more aptly devoted to some of the unsung heroes of music. Therefore, I wanted to acknowledge a few of the people who passed away in 2004 whose influence was just as great as Ray Charles and Johnny Ramone but were not as much in the limelight as these two famous people. Their accomplishments are truly noteworthy and important.

Dick Heckstall-Smith – For every person who ever played saxophone and dreamed of playing that instrument in a rock ‘n’ roll band, Dick Heckstall-Smith was the person to admire. He played with John Mayall Blues band, the progressive rock band, Colosseum and was featued prominently on the Jack Bruce albums after Jack left Cream for a solo career. His session work credits read like a who’s who of British and American music. My favorite Jack Bruce album, ‘Things We Like’ highlights Dick’s work as a performer and writer. Similarly, any album by Colosseum that features him is a ‘must have’ as an example of how well a saxophone can be used by a rock band. If you can get them, purchase the Jack Bruce albums, ‘Things We Like’ on ATCO (SD 33-349) or ‘Songs For A Tailor’ on ATCO (SD 33-306) as prime examples of Dick’s work.
Terry Knight – Few managers of rock bands had the moxie demonstrated by Terry Knight. He began in the music business as a DJ and then branched out into a brief recording career having a hit record ‘I, Who Have Nothing’ by Terry Knight & The Pack. He left the performing aspect of the business to concentrate on managing a group from his native Michigan and called them Grand Funk Railroad. Terry was flamboyant and was the first manager to get the idea to publicize the group on a billboard. The controversial billboard he used was placed in Times Square. Grand Funk went on to great notoriety and success due to his efforts, but under a sea of lawsuits GFR dissolved their relationship with Knight who never duplicated his success with his subsequent ventures. Terry was a true pioneer who paved the way for other rock managers to learn from his exploits.
Barney Kessel – I am a fan of the session musician. I am in awe of the person who can be called in the morning to play on recording date that features rock music and then go to another session that features jazz and wind up the day playing on a big band record. Barney Kessel was just that type of individual. His roots began as a jazz guitarist playing with such people as Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson. He recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin and Elvis Presely to name just a few. He actually played on many of Elvis Presley’s hits. As the 60’s music evolved, Barney evolved too. He was in demand to play on rock sessions and in particular was called into many of the Brian Wilson sessions for ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Smile’. Legendary producer, Phil Spector used Barney for many of his sessions as well. Whether it was jazz, rock, big band, Barney Kessel was the guitar man to call.

Kenny Buttrey – I first became acquainted with the work of Kenneth Buttrey when my cousin gave me album to listen to called ‘Area Code 615*.’ He literally insisted that I take the album and go home immediately to listen to it. At the time, I was a fan of hard rock and no other style of music mattered to me. 615 was the area code for Nashville, but it also was the name used by the most notable Nashville based session musicians for their new group. They got together and recorded an album of tunes not only written by themselves, but also written by people like Otis Redding, Lennon/McCartney, Bob Dylan, etc. performed in a country mode. By listening to this album, I became acquainted with Kenny’s work as the drummer and co-producer on this album. To this day, this is one of my favorite albums in my collection. Much like Barney Kessel, he was adept at playing all styles of music. Whenever a recording session was booked in Nashville, it was pretty good bet that Kenny would be called. Country stars, rock stars all used Kenny’s talents on their sessions in Nashville. He was the drummer for Bob Dylan on the ‘Nashville Skyline’ breakthrough album as well as working on Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ albums. He also is the drummer on the Neil Young ‘Harvest’ album. There is a great picture of Neil, Kenny and the rest of the recording group on the back of the album. I must confess that before I heard the first ‘Area Code 615*’ album, I was not much of a fan of the country music style. However, the musical interpretations they created were an awakening for me and I thank Kenneth and his cohorts for opening me up to this style of music.
I am saddened by the loss of these music people, but richer for the music and the memories they left behind. Fortunately, their legacy remains in the grooves of the records they produced and in the influence they provided for future generations.

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