Tag Archives: 20 Feet from Stardom

Joe Cocker and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

22 Dec

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame logo

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 2015 was announced recently, and the carping began immediately thereafter.

Here are the inductees, according to category:

  • “Former Upstarts Who Became Mainstream Stars”: Green Day
  • “We’re Embarrassed that Brian Epstein was Inducted Before Him”: Ringo Starr
  • “It’s About Damn Time”: Lou Reed
  • “Wait, He’s Not Already In?”: Stevie Ray Vaughan
  • “Any Other White Blues Guys We Missed?”: Paul Butterfield
  • “Great Voice, but, uh, Why?”: Bill Withers
  • “We Have to Induct a Girl with a Guitar – Who’s Left?”: Joan Jett
  • “Uh, Who?”: The “5” Royales
Kiss Action Figures

Perhaps you’re more likely to get into the Hall of Fame if you have your own action figures

As usual, there were seminal acts on the ballot much worthier than the winners, and even more weren’t even considered who should have been ensconced in Cleveland years ago. You gotta wonder how the induction committee determines who gets in and who doesn’t. Beyond having recording at least 25 years prior to consideration, the criteria is purposely vague:

We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.

For my money, the key phrases here are,”musical influence” and “musical excellence.” Anyone who gets in should have moved the medium forward … which ought to excuse Ms. Jett from consideration in the first place. This would also justify 2014 inductee Kiss, which – despite critics’ deep distaste – inspired numerous (male) musicians at a formative age, ranging from ?uestlove to Rivers Cuomo (as a snippet of tape from his middle school days attests).

Joe CockerWhich brings me to Joe Cocker, who died Dec. 22.

Cocker is not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps he isn’t because he was influenced more than he influences. By his own admission in a documentary I saw a few years ago (was it Across From Midnight?), he idolized Ray Charles so much, he imitated him down to rocking back and forth as if he was playing Ray’s piano. He was also a singer who didn’t play an instrument and rarely sang his own compositions.

But man oh man, how he sang: that’s the definition of “musical excellence” right there.

As much as his appearance at Woodstock cemented his place in rock history, the magnificent Mad Dogs & Englishmen exemplifies his power as a vocalist and musician. Backed by a phenomenal band led by Leon Russell (featuring 20 Feet from Stardom star Claudia Lennear, and saxophonist Bobby Keys, who also died recently), Cocker rolled through tunes by the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and a crushing “Blue Medley,” with the fervor of a revival preacher. Here’s a sample from the documentary of the tour:


Cocker had scattered hits later in his career, including the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong,” but it’s that sweaty, scorching, full-body singing in the late 1960s/early 1970s that was his gift to rock and roll, and to us.

Rest in peace, Joe, and may you be the first name on the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot.

See you on the flip side … and Happy Holidays!

Rock Docs: Pussy Riot, Love and Death

25 Jun

Just in time for the hot weather, there is more than one good reason to stay in the air-conditioned indoors. Three amazing rock documentaries are on TV, online and in major theaters this month. In a way, each one of these films poses the same big question – “What is being a rock musician worth to you?” – then answers on very unique and personal terms.

Free Pussy Riot PosterPussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (HBO)

There is nothing complacent about punk. It’s noisy, raw, provocative and unapologetic. Done poorly, punk music merely sneers at the world. Done well, it changes it.

The Pussy Riot Collective, a group of young feminist oppositional artists, formed when Vladimir Putin was elected to a third term as Russian President amid allegations of fraud. Dressed in their subversive uniform of “masks, dresses and musical instruments,” their songs challenged Putin and his repressive social policies. After several brief, goofy performances,  including one in a cosmetics store and another in front of a Russian prison, they staged a protest in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, playing for 40 seconds at the altar before being hauled away. Their goal was to expose the cozy relationship between church and state as well as the breathtaking patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As a result, three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and found guilty of trespassing and religious hatred. As this remarkable documentary makes clear, they were also convicted for being outspoken and female. After being on display in glass cells in the Russian courtroom throughout their trial, all three were sentenced to two years in a prison camp. One is now out after an appeal (and back in the Collective); the others are still in Siberia.

Watching this film, I marveled at how fiercely brilliant these women are and how their commitment to their art and ideals leaves most Americans in the dust. Catch it while you can.

A Band Called Death (available as video on demand now and in theaters starting June 28)

Why have I never heard of this band until now? I can’t be the only one asking that after hearing songs by Death, a band formed in 1973 by three African-American brothers in Detroit who wanted to play rock and ended up creating punk:

I can’t wait to catch the documentary when it opens this weekend. With Alice Cooper as a featured interview, it’s gotta be good.

20 Feet from Stardom (now playing in major cities and going into wider release)

I adore Darlene Love. I know her best from the Phil Spector Christmas album and look forward to her gig on the David Letterman show every December to sing “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” I also love the gals with the big voices backing up Joe Cocker in “A Little Help From My Friends,” wailing on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” and blowing the roof off  “Gimme Shelter.” When those songs come up on my playlist, I sign along with them, not Joe or Mick or David Gilmour.

Pity is, none of them – not even Ms. Love, who’s rightfully a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – is a household name. Many of them sang better than the stars they supported yet for one reason or another, they never became famous in their own right. They are literally and figuratively in the background. Given how much press this film is getting, that may change.

Let me know which musicians you’re watching this summer on the big screen … and whether you’re a Junior Mints or M&Ms kind of movie-goer.

See you on the flip side …

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