What’s the fuss over Prince’s death? Life.

Some are probably wondering out there why such a “fuss” is in progress over the death of Prince. The musician, singer, songwriter, all-around celebrity died Thursday at his Minnesota home at age 57.

I wasn’t a great Prince fan. I heard many of his songs on the radio during the mid-1980s. The song of his I like the most was “Kiss.”  The tune incorporates R & B, soul and rock and roll. Even if you didn’t like his songs but really appreciate music as I do, you have to admit he had way out-sized talent in his small 5-feet 2-inch body. The guy was a genius in more ways of one.

The whole thing about Prince changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, then being known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, was mainly disdain for his recording label. The change was something he was ridiculed over. His description of events were that Warner Brothers had taken his name and trademarked it, something he reacted to by painting “SLAVE” on his face. When he signed a new deal, he became Prince again.

As goofy as it all sounds, mystique was one of the reasons he was so endeared to his fans. I can dig that. In one way or the other I have re-invented myself a time or two.

Every generation has a figure, a rock star or band, which might define those times. For the older generation it was Sinatra. In more recent times, say for the last 50 years, it was Elvis or the Beatles. I am reading a book now about someone who really identified with Nirvana in the 90s. I never really got what they were saying. I like some of the songs, “Smells Like Team Spirit, which is a great rock song. I can see where the younger or young at heart might consider this biggest Nirvana hit an anthem for the times.

This has been a particularly bad year for renown musicians, having lost David Bowie, the Eagles’ Glen Frey, Merle Haggard and now Prince. The first three were all of a certain age, all of whom spent many years in music and their original fan base were roughly the age of the musicians or perhaps younger. Yeah, a lot more where they came from, a cynic might say. Prince was only 57. “Only” 57. I am 60 and people say 60 is the new 50. Whatever.

Long ago, it seemed you would hear someone with a hit record. They might have another or even more. Then you might never hear of them. These days with multi-media forms and the internet, practically no musicians never go away. Even after they die. That is good, well, as long as the music is good. People need to hear the music they want to hear. They need to sing in the shower or rock out on the commute home.

While we mourn the past, it seems as if celebrating today — as in the moment — is a logical segue. Whistle while you work, or sing along as you play.

“Sing Me Back Home,” even if you can’t sing

Perhaps I would be a bit remiss by not mentioning the passing of a great American songster: Merle Haggard.

The country music legend died April 6, 2016, his birthday, at his home in the San Joaquin Valley of California. His wife, Theresa, said on the singer’s official website that Haggard had long suffered various health problems.

Growing up where I did, in the East Texas Pineywoods — just across the Sabine River from Louisiana, it was pretty hard to avoid country music. That and Swamp Pop, a combination of Cajun music, and rhythm and blues. The older I got the more I enjoyed rock and roll, in a progressive fashion. First, it was the Monkees, later came more substantial rock and soon I was listening to Black Sabbath, the former thanks to my departed buddy, Waldo. My musical tastes ran wild and still continue to do so. I like many of the older rockers like Chuck Berry, as well as the blues as performed like the masters, ranging from Bobby “Blue” Bland to B.B. King.  But I never really got away from “both  kinds of music — country AND western,” as the bar owner told Jake and Elwood in “The Blues Brothers.”

Some periods of country music were worst than most. Some of the Nashville music big shots wanted to take the country and western out of the country and western. But there were some noble souls who wouldn’t ride that train, the so-called “outlaws” like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver, and Kris Kristofferson. Many of this bunch decided Austin would be a much more compatible location for the type of music they wanted to do.

But through it all, Merle Haggard traveled onward dodging most of the bastardized C & W hits, through the last of the century and on into the new one. In later years he seemed to be as mellow an outlaw as his compatriots such as Willie did. Although, Haggard remained true to his music and what he felt about life, love, heartbreak, hard time as well as hard times.

Merle Haggard performing in Tennessee in 2009. Photo: Creative Commons
Merle Haggard performing in Tennessee in 2009. Photo: Creative Commons

It would be hard to rate my favorite songs by The Hag. That would be like asking who is my favorite family member? I love his prisons songs: “Sing Me Back Home,” “Branded Man” as well as his tributes that proceeded to Jimmie Rodgers and later, Bob Wills. A couple of my favorite were “Rainbow Stew” and “Big City.”

I suppose an example of my love of The Hag’s music is back in high school when I was a just a long-haired kid . My late brother John asked me if I would go with him to the nursing home and play for the patients. I must have been smoking something or other because I hadn’t sung in front of people since grammar school and I don’t think I have sung solo, in public, since.

John was a pretty good piano player who performed with some local boys in high school. This was probably when I was maybe six or seven years old. He continued to play, though not so much for the public. His first wife Wendy, a great gal I would have done anything for, was the recreation director for the home. I can’t remember if he and Wendy were divorced or separated by then, it doesn’t really matter. The home needed some entertainment so it looked like John at the piano, this young black gospel guitarist and myself, vocalist, were it.

About the only songs I knew I could sing with anything near accuracy was Merle Haggard songs. I will say this, John did a heck of a job playing even when he wasn’t particularly familiar with the song. And the young guitarist followed along on every song that, with his gospel background, gave our odd group a bluesy sound,

The old folks loved it. Of course, if I had been in their shoes I’d have probably liked anything. At least no one told me to quit my day job — which was high school.

Lots of memories have flooded over during these last two days while thinking about Merle’s songs. I never saw him play, but as a master musician, he was the genuine article. And, he left us with a long, rich legacy to enjoy.

Glenn Frey checks out. So do the Eagles.

What can you say about the death of Glenn Frey?

A founder, guitarist and singer in the Eagles, Frey died Monday at age 67. I didn’t know until after Frey died, from complications of rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and pneumonia, that so many people hated the Eagles. It seems as if most people in my world, at least most that matter, loved or at least, liked, the band’s music. At the very least, the songs Frey and the Eagles produced was background music for most of the 1970s and 80s.

It is very difficult talking about Frey — no matter that he did better than okay as a solo musician — without talking about the Eagles. Often times the band seemed more like a modern version of a soap opera. Something like a reality show, even though I imagine during their more drug-fueled days their lives  were more of an “unreality” show.

"Glenn Frey" by Steve Alexander - originally posted to Flickr as Glenn Frey. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons . Thanks
“Glenn Frey” photo by Steve Alexander – Courtesy Creative Commons

I rediscovered the Eagles last year after seeing some You Tube videos from a concert the Eagles did in 1977, promoting their “Hotel California” album.

I don’t know how many people see music concerts today. I certainly don’t but then I am 60-freakin’ years old.

I’d say from high school up until I got out of the Navy, I went to as many concerts as I could. While stationed on the Mississippi Coast there were several prime venues nearby. I saw concerts at the Superdome, City Park and at Loyola University in New Orleans. I went to several concerts in Mobile. I saw three separate shows which were excellent at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg that were excellent: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Review during which he was joined by Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson and Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. Later, I watched Jimmy Buffett, fresh from “Margaritaville” come back to the college he attended, USM. Buffet was, he told the audience, a hippie who’d hang out in the Commons with his guitar playing songs such as “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw” as all the school teachers from the outback of Mississippi walked by on their way to continuing education classes.

Yes, concerts, I’ve seen a few.

I’m sure those who have seen many performances of any kind have seen musicians or bands, “phone-in” what is just another gig. These videos that I found that includes “Hotel California,” “Take It To The Limit,” and “New Kid In Town{” are incredible. That is not so much the songs are exceptional — well, “Hotel California” is — but the performances were nothing one heard on the radio, much less the AM radio I mostly had to hear during this time, nor is there much one can tell about quality listening to these songs on a bar room jukebox.

I have a couple Eagles albums on my computer and phone including “Hotel California” from the album. They are good but great Graham Crackers these videos are outstanding.

These songs also provide a soundtrack to our lives, as trite as that line sounds these days. But f**k it if you think it’s trite, or whatever you may think. There is no denying that music forms memories of the portions of our lives we choose to remember. “Johnny come lately, there’s a new kid in town,” “New Kid In Town” hit No. 1 on Billboard in January 1977. It was just one of the singles that were a hit on “Hotel.” Following were “Hotel California” and “Life In The Fast Lane.” The songs became more meaningful for me when I transferred from Gulfport, Miss., to a ship out of San Diego, by way of Long Beach.

I never went to “Hotel California” but I spent the night in some motel in San Clemente, not to see my former commander-in-chief, President Nixon, but to stay near a military town in order to get my whites cleaned. The laundry was outside what is now called Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and the cleaners had no trouble getting my dress whites ready, so I could report on my ship which was in drydock in San Pedro. I did think about “Life In The Fast Lane” as well, both the mundane of  navigating the California freeways and later that life that so many people seemed eager to find.

Regretfully, I never saw the Eagles either. And I guess with Frey gone, the group is officially kaput. I thought the group kind of gradually split up, first with bassist and group founder Randy Meisner and later lead guitarist Don Felder. The band’s inner workings are one of the most written-about for a rock group. Glenn Frey, some would say, was an arrogant bastard. Well, so aren’t a lot of folks, even some of your friends?

We close a chapter in rock history. But a family loses their loved one, and one might say a public both old and young lose a favorite band. And the band was also like a family with all its fighting and drama. Hopefully though, not now for, Glenn Frey. May he rest in peace.


Percy Sledge: King of the “belly-rubbing” sound dies

Another one bites the dust. I suppose that is inelegant way of starting a “web obituary.” But sometimes it seems, although I have not yet reached 60 years old, that I know more people who have now passed than I do live ones. That’s not true but it sure seems as such.

With that said, I note the passing of soul great Percy Sledge who died Tuesday in Baton Rouge. Sledge, 74, was best know for his lovelorn ballad “When A Man Loves A Woman.” It was an instant hit in 1966. That song and others he recorded like “Take Time To Know Her” were classic soul ballads of those and later years.

He was without a doubt, back in the day, the king of what my Daddy used to call “belly-rubbing music.”

Sledge toured the rest of his life, never recording any later tunes that equaled his first chart-wise. But if you were of my age in the late 1960s and 1970s, you probably heard his songs on diner jukeboxes while eating greasy chicken-fried steaks to soak up some of the night’s intoxicants. And if you were lucky you also may have watched him play live during his 50-something years of touring.

I was lucky to see him although that didn’t happen the first time I went to one of his concerts. That first time was also my first time to visit a nightclub, which was in Vinton, La., near the Southeast Texas border with Louisiana. I was carded and was not allowed inside because I was 16.

The next time was successful and not only did I get to see Percy perform, but I also got to interview him during a break outside the back door of the club. I just told a band member some mumbo-jumbo, I had actually reviewed a Chicago concert earlier in the year for my hometown newspaper for which I had covered local sports.

My friend Nick and I got to talk to Percy for several minutes. Sledge seem preoccupied with a Houston Astros game on the radio of his limo. I can’t remember if I even wrote a story about our encounter with the great soul singer. Whatever, he and his band members were good enough to give a couple of under-age kids a few words of wisdom. Or something.

Percy, rest in peace, man.


Too many deaths too close to home

Too many of my favorite people have died lately. Two of them were brothers. Yesterday, the great bluesman Johnny Winter from right here in Beaumont, Texas, died in Zurich at the age of 70.

My brothers passed away within two months of each other, one in May the other two weeks ago. Another fabulous R & B favorite of mine and contemporary of Winter likewise died in May. Jerry LaCroix had been popular in this region for years before he joined with Edgar Winter’s White Trash. As a matter of fact, I imagine both of my now deceased brothers had heard LaCroix in southwestern Louisiana nightclubs when he played with the regional favorite, the Boogie Kings. I also remember one of those brothers saying he saw Winter play back in the early 60s in one of those Louisiana clubs.

LaCroix — whom I interviewed for a newspaper article about the Boogie Kings in the mid-90s — would go on to replace vocalist David Clayton Thomas in Blood, Sweat and Tears. After a short solo stint, LaCroix toured as vocalist for Rare Earth.

I want to write about my brothers. They were interesting people. They may not have been as rich and famous as rock stars but their lives were rich in other ways. I’m sure they had enough fame to suit them as well. But I find it a difficult task to write a fitting tribute to them. Maybe I should start with an unfitting tribute. Nonetheless, I don’t feel up to writing about mo’ dead folks right now. I don’t feel the need to explain to anyone, except myself. I hope I will understand.