Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ask Mr. Music by Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: Your recent piece about Brian Wilson's Gershwin tribute reminded me of a TV special from about 10 years ago.

It was a tribute to Wilson, with a gathering of celebrities on hand to honor him. They all sang Beach Boys songs, but only Elton John dueted with Brian.

Most memorable for me was them doing "Wouldn't It Be Nice." But what I can't recall is what Elton said about Brian before their song.

Can you can dig up his words of admiration?
—Marsha Pullman, Fond du Lac, Wis.

Didn't have to dig deep for this info.

Titled "An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson," the gala event took place March 29, 2001 at Radio City Music Hall in N.Y. On July 4th, TNT aired a somewhat edited version.

Elton first sings "God Only Knows," then returns to the stage for the night's unsurpassed performance.

Before Brian launches into "wouldn't it be nice if we were older and we wouldn't have to wait so long," Sir Elton John (knighted in 1998) says:

"There's been so many words spoken about the brilliance of Brian Wilson.

"For a keyboard player, like myself, he changed the goal posts when it came to writing songs.

"I'm getting very technical here, but he was one of the first people to move the root note on a chord, and play with the third or the fifth on the bass. And that, if you're a songwriter and a keyboard player, was revolutionary.

"I have so many great memories of listening to his music … and when you heard "Pet Sounds," it blew your head off.

"I'm truly humbled to be on stage with a genius, and a dear, dear man, Brian Wilson."

My first reaction to this "very technical" mumbo-jumbo was that those whose keyboard acumen allows them to understand it require no explanation. For those who don't understand it now, there may not be an adequate explanation.

I'm taking the middle ground here, and offering this brief interpretation:

Brian Wilson broke away from the traditional C chord root and bass notes so common in writing and playing rock and roll music. The major chord has a root, a major third, and a perfect fifth (i.e., C, E, and G).

Perhaps inspired by the great classical composers, who tinkered with such harmonic complexities in the 17th century, Brian introduced pop and rock to an avant-garde application of bass notes in harmonies.

Or better yet just listen to "Pet Sounds," especially "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B," and "God Only Knows."

DEAR JERRY: Like most families in the late 1940s, we didn't have a TV. For entertainment, dad played his records, all 78s as I recall.

He had one that sticks with me, but I can't find anything about it.

One side is about a grasshopper being in bed with a guy, or something similar.

All I get when I run a search is stuff about "The Grasshopper and the Ant," "Kung-Fu," and a lot about insects.

Oddly enough, on the other side the singer referred to his woman as a bumble bee, but that search brings up Lavern Baker, the Searchers, and canned tuna.

Any ideas about this record I heard 60-some years ago?
—Charles Chambers, Indio, Calif.

You recall accurately that both sides of the record had an entomological connection.

The singer is folk and blues legend Huddie William Ledbetter, whose records were credited to either Lead Belly or Leadbelly. In your case, it's the latter.

The Leadbelly 78 that's been bugging you since childhood is "Grasshoppers in My Pillow" backed with "Sweet Mary Blues" (Capitol Americana 40038), a 1947 release.

Having been booted out of the house, the poor fellow no longer has a place to sleep. Using the ground for his bed, it was easy for grasshoppers to crawl inside his pillow. The infestation doesn't end there, as he also complains about crickets in his meal.

Leadbelly also recorded three more tunes with an insect connection: "Boll Weevil"; "Yellow Jacket"; and "Blue Tail Fly."

Turning that Capitol record over, "Sweet Mary Blues" reveals that "she ain't no bumble bee, but she can sure make sweet honey for me, and I'll lose my mind if I don't find sweet Mary."

You are right about dad's record collection being 78s only, as 45s didn't become available until 1949 or later, depending on the company.

IZ ZAT SO? The yin and yang of Huddie Ledbetter is first how he was known to have an explosive temper, one that earned him numerous stints in prisons, based on assorted charges including homicides.

Bob Dylan once referred to Lead Belly as possibly the only convicted felon to record a children's album: "Negro Folk Songs for Young People" (Folkways 7533), issued in 1959.

On the flip side, Lead Belly is equally famous for writing and originally recording some true classics. Among those are "Goodnight Irene" (Weavers, Jo Stafford, etc.); "Cotton Fields" (Highwaymen, Beach Boys); "Rock Island Line" (Lonnie Donegan, Bobby Darin); and "Black Betty" (Ram Jam).

PS: With this column, we begin our 27th year in syndication. If there is a currently syndicated music feature (especially Q&A) that has been running longer, we are not aware of it (which doesn't mean there isn't one out there somewhere).


Jerry Osborne answers as many questions as possible through this column. Write Jerry at: Box 255, Port Townsend, WA 98368 E-mail:   Visit his Web site:  

All values quoted in this column are for near-mint condition.