Tag Archives: Music

Video for the Classroom: “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man”

It’s almost criminal that over a week has passed in Black History Month, and the Neighborhood has no posts about important African Americans.

Today’s post is a more fun aspect of history, but important nonetheless.  It can be argued that more musical tributes were written about Joe Louis than any other athlete in American history–a Black athlete accepted by both whites and Blacks.

The longest-running heavyweight boxing champion in history, from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was among the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.  A hero to African Americans beaten down by the Depression, discrimination and Klan violence, Louis would also become the first Black athlete widely accepted by whites as well.

The culminating moment of Louis’ career was the second fight between Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938.  Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was immediately cast as the villain (despite his own antipathy towards Hitler).  Louis, incredibly, became an American hero overnight. 

His defeat of Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds sent Black neighborhoods across America into wild celebrations, and create something of a mythic hero in Joe Louis.  It would be a heroism belied by the still-rampant discrimination in American life through World War II.

Today’s video is a montage of Joe’s greatest hits.  Yet it’s the audio that’s most important.  Listen to the great blues ballad “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man” and you can get a glimpse of how much Joe Louis meant to people.

It’s also a pretty good tune.  Enjoy.

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This Day in History 8/15: The Beatles’ 1965 Concert at Shea Stadium

Who brought out Shea Stadium‘s biggest crowd in 1965, perhaps in its history?  Well, it certainly wasn’t the hapless Mets (with all due respect to Mets fans).

On August 15, 1965, Beatlemania reached on of its true zeniths, as the seminal British rock band The Beatles played in Shea Stadium, the Mets’ home field, for their second US tour.  The band would play once more there the next year, and would never play in public again after that tour.

Over 55,000 people packed into Flushing to see the Beatles play on a small stage below center field.  The noise was deafening, but not due to the music: the fans’ shouts and screams–as well as the distance of the band from the audience, meant nobody really heard much of anything.  It was only when Ed Sullivan released a documentary of the performance that anyone actually heard the setlist.

Furthermore, the Shea concert began a revolution in live music, for both good and ill.  Its massive profits proved to promoters that massive outdoor arena shows can indeed be good business.  The subsequent decade, particularly into the 1970s, saw the rise of “arena rock” as bands with giant speakers and screaming guitars blasted their way through stadiums and outdoor venues.

However, the “arena rock” phase would often be criticized as formulaic, sterile and commercial.  Ironically, it would prove to be the catalyst of a countermovement, punk, that re-captured the indoor rebellious spirit of rock.

Attached is Ed Sullivan’s introduction of the band, and their rendition of “Twist and Shout.”  Believe me, be lucky this documentary exists: you would’ve heard nothing but the white noise of screaming adolescents if you were there.

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This Day in History 8/4: Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

True entertainers are gifts from above.

The best of them have dedicated their lives to their fans, to help spread joy to millions worldwide, and to make us feel, at least for a moment, just a little bit better.

Thus is truly the case with today’s subject.  August 4, 1901 marks the recorded birthday of Louis Armstrong, arguably the single most important artist in the history of American music.  The New Orleans-borne trumpeter—who grew up in an area so violent it was nicknamed “the Battlefield”—became the emblem for America’s musical genius, spreading his influence to almost every genre of our popular music.

Starting with King Oliver’s Band and then to his own ensembles, Armstrong took a local musical form, jazz, into an international phenomenon, introducing new methods of improvisation, phrasing, arrangement and vocal technique.  His “scat” vocals, which intermingled jazz lyrics and improvised rhythmic sounds, became the basis for almost all vocal popular music today, from country to hip-hop.

Then there was his trumpet.  I can hear Armstrong’s loud, direct, brassy trumpet anywhere and know it was his.  Every time I hear it, I weep.  Every time I hear his vocal recording, I’m in tears.  No other artist has that effect on me.

I am not alone.  Up until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong, known as “Satchmo”, “Satch” or “Pops” to his fans, entertained millions of people around the world.  He was adored, often worshipped, as the jolly, magnanimous ambassador of America to places as far as Asia and Africa.  His popularity was evident even as late as 1964, when Armstrong’s recording of “Hello Dolly” dethroned the Beatles from the # 1 spot on the Billboard pop music charts.

Yet he did not forget who he was, and the struggles that people of color faced.  Many blacks in his era criticized Armstrong for being too “cozy” with white audiences, with being too complimentary to white sensibilities.  Yet if you listen to Fats Waller’s lyrics from his famous 1929 tune “Black and Blue”, you may think otherwise:

“Cold empty bed…springs hurt my head.

Feels like ole Ned…wished I was dead.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?

Even the mouse…ran from my house.

They laugh at you..and all that you do.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?

I’m white…inside…but that don’t help my case.

That’s life…can’t hide…what is in my face.

How would it end…ain’t got a friend.

My only sin…is in my skin.

What did I do…to be so black and blue?”

In 1957, as the Little Rock Nine endured torrents of abuse in integrating Little Rock High School, Pops reportedly wired President Eisenhower the following: “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy.”

Many today would argue that Michael Jackson was more influential, more important to music.  With all due respect to Michael, there would be no King of Pop without “Pops.”  Jazz, rock, rap, hip-hop, country, popular vocals, Latin music—there isn’t a single planet that wasn’t within Armstrong’s orbit. 

Bing Crosby said of him, “He was the only musician who ever lived, who can’t be replaced by someone.”

Fellow musical titan Duke Ellington: “He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone along the way.”

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns: “Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel.”

Miles Davis was more frank: “No him, no me.”

I wanted to include some recordings, some MP3s of Armstrong’s music, but many tracks are not as of yet in the public domain.  If anyone in the Neighborhood has any links to free downloads of Armstrong’s recordings, please let me know.

In the meantime, here’s a video of Armstrong’s 1933 Copenhagen recording of “Dinah”, followed by Pops’ performance of “Hello Dolly” later in his career. 

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Last Day of School!: “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper

Here in the NYC, it is finally the last day of school.  To celebrate this day–a day long in coming–I present an old classic.  Alice Cooper performs “School’s Out” at the Montreux Festival, and his rocking energy speaks for thousands of teachers heading for a much needed rest.  Enjoy.

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This Day in History 2/3: “The Day the Music Died”

The Neighborhood raises their collective glasses to Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

To most of us, these names are vaguely familiar, but to earlier generations, their death signalled the end of an era.

On February 5, 1959, Valens, Holly and Richardson–all well-known rock-and-roll stars of the mid-late 1950s–boarded a Beechcraft Bonanza plane near Clear Lake, Iowa following an unscheduled stop on their tour.  Their plane lost contact with the control tower within minutes in a blinding snowstorm, and by 3:30 AM the wreckage of the plane was found.

The news devastated the music world, and signalled the close of the early rock era.  By the late 1950’s, the early rock edge had softened to more commercial acts, and the victims of the crash were considered the last vestiges of the initial energy and demeanor of rock music.  Thus ended the age of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and early Elvis–soon to be followed by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and later, fatter Elvis.

One young person who took the crash to heart was Don McLean.  In 1972, McLean released “American Pie”, his ode to the music and memories of his youth.  It is in this song that he referred to the crash as “The Day the Music Died”.  McLean himself never tried to decipher fully his own cryptic lyrics, but generations of music lovers since have tossed and turned over its meaning. 

Attached is a recording of McLean in 1972 singing his classic tune.  Enjoy.

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