Saturday, February 16, 2013

Different Enough

When you stop to think of all of the guitarists that you have heard in popular music, you begin to realize that not only are there hundreds or more, but even those that play the same genre are all clearly different. Then the next thought for me was, “Well duh – that’s why we have heard of them.”

It’s not just ability that makes a guitarist famous; it is a degree of uniqueness that makes him or her become well known. There have probably been thousands of bar band guitar players in the rock era that could play exactly like Page or Clapton, but most of them never became famous. It’s not because they weren’t good enough – it is often because they weren’t different enough. The guitarists in this piece brought their own unique style and sound that made them stand out in the fiercely competitive world of rock and roll.

Besides being a spectacularly talented guitarist, Steve Howe has the odd distinction of having played for two bands that had one-word names – Yes and Asia. Howe is rarely mentioned in the ‘top’ lists, but it’s not for lack of talent. Rolling Stone Magazine listed Howe at #69 in their Top 100 list. My guess as to why Howe isn’t ranked higher is the fact that he’s not a rock/blues guy – his ‘label’ was ‘progressive’. The Rolling Stone list has rock and/or blues players in the top ten, and in my opinion, that reflects a bias towards those that play in that genre.

Howe’s major influences were quite different than those of most rock guitarists. They included renowned jazz guitarists Barney Kessel, Django Reinhart, Wes Montgomery, flamenco great Carlos Montoya, country legend Chet Atkins, and classical players such as Andres Segovia and Julian Bream – very different from guitarists that inspired most of Howe’s contemporaries (or virtually any rock guitarist). The fact that he played a Gibson ES-175D – considered a jazz guitar – made Howe different than the solid body guitarists (although the great Scotty Moore played a similar model).

Howe told Brian Vance in an interview in 2000, ‘The Man With the Guitar Mind’:

"No one was playing archtop, hollowbody guitars in a rock band. People laughed at me and thought I was really snooty. To me, it was an object of art, it wasn't just a guitar."

Howe continued:

“When blues got such a stronghold at the end of the 60s, that's when I really rejected blues and decided I wasn't going to play another clichéd blues phrase. To find my own thing, I felt I had to lose the blues connection.”

Many might consider that a bit of blasphemy, but part of what rock music is about is experimentation. No one should accuse Steve Howe of being ‘clichéd’ – he is unique primarily because of his different influences and how he progressed as a guitarist.

If you haven’t listened to Howe’s work on Yes or Asia albums (or his solo work) recently, take some time to reacquaint yourself with his brand of rock guitar. You may find that you understand more about where he was coming from and how he got there.

When I hear the name Steve Gaines, I shake my head in sadness for what might have been. He seemingly came out of nowhere to play for one of the biggest guitar bands in history; less than two years later he and his sister were killed.

Gaines began his guitar journey on September 17, 1964 when Steve was 15. After seeing the Beatles live in concert in Kansas City, he convinced his father to buy him a guitar, and he was off and running. Over the next 11 years, he built his chops in various bands, and he recorded a solo album, One In the Sun’ in 1975 (although it was not released until 11 years after his death). His older sister Cassie became a Lynyrd Skynyrd backup singer the same year that Steve recorded his only solo album. At the time that Cassie joined Skynyrd, guitarist Ed King had quit and the others were still seeking a replacement. Cassie mentioned Steve and although the band was reportedly reluctant to add him to the lineup, eventually he was given a shot.

By all accounts it became immediately obvious that they had made the right choice – Steve Gaines fit right into the band. The three-guitar attack – Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, and now Steve Gaines (the Fender guy between two Gibsons) – were perfect together. Besides Steve’s stellar lead and rhythm work, his vocal abilities added a new dimension to the group. He wrote the stomping ‘I Know A Little’, co-wrote and contributed vocals to ‘You Got That Right’, wrote, sang lead vocal, and played lead guitar on ‘Ain’t No Good Life’. You listen to Gaines’ vocal on this song and you just know that there was more quality stuff to come from this guy.

Then came October 20, 1977, when it all changed.

The Skynyrd plane went down, killing Ronnie Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, among several others. Many of the survivors suffered severe injuries, including Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, and Artemus Pyle. The physical and emotional pain lasted for years - in fact, it would be 10 years before the surviving members re-formed the band. As if it wasn’t enough for the Gaines family to lose both Steve and Cassie, less than two years after the plane crash, their mother, also named Cassie, was killed in a car accident near the cemetery where her children are buried.

We still celebrate the memory of those lost in that crash, every time we listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Ray and Dave Davies – better known as the core members of The Kinks - were a major part of the British Invasion in the 1960’s. Ray was the singer, rhythm guitarist, and primary songwriter, while Dave played lead guitar. Between them they established a sound that made them memorable.

Ray wrote a number of hit songs, including ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘All Day and All of the Night’, ‘Tired of Waiting For You’, and ‘Lola’. Ray also discovered something that made their sound different – he took a razor to the speaker cone in his Elpico amp, creating a unique distorted sound that helped to make their music stand out.

Unfortunately for the Kinks, after their 1965 American tour, they were banned from touring in the US for four years. No one really knows for sure what the ban was about, but according to an article on ‘Rule Forty’, it may have been due to one or more of the following reasons:

They failed to do a contracted show in Sacramento, California; Ray Davies punched a union representative that insulted their homeland, or they failed to pay the necessary television union dues before an appearance on a Dick Clark show.

Whatever the reason, that four year ban was a major setback. A band that does not tour in support of an album tends to lose out on critical revenue and fan interest. By the time the Kinks returned to the US, they were still selling tickets, but fans were not as interested anymore. The band enjoyed limited success in the ensuing years, but they finally broke up in 1996. The Kinks were no longer a band on the rise; declining record sales and differences of opinion between Ray and Dave regarding the music, spelled the end.

The Davies brothers were pioneers in guitar tone and they gave us memorable music – significant contributions to rock and roll.

Bernie Leadon grew up in a musical family, where he learned banjo, mandolin, guitar, and an appreciation for folk and bluegrass music. Bernie moved with his family to California in the early 1960’s; he joined a bluegrass band called the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and played alongside future Byrd, Flying Burrito Brother, and Desert Rose Band member Chris Hillman.

After the Squirrel Barkers, Leadon’s bluegrass and folk influences made him a good fit for Dillard and Clark (along with Hillman) and later, the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Hillman and Gram Parsons). Both bands were important in this new sound called country rock. After the Brothers, Leadon signed on to play in Linda Ronstadt’s backing band the Corvettes, and to play on her album ‘Linda Ronstadt’ in 1971. Three other musicians had already been hired to play for Ronstadt: Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Randy Meisner.

So began one of the great American bands – the Eagles. They brought their brand of California country rock to the world, thanks in no small part to the multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon. Their first hit song, ‘Take It Easy’, had Bernie playing pedal steel style licks on electric six string guitar – one of the great solos in rock history. He also played banjo on the song – not an instrument associated with any form of rock music - but it worked perfectly. Although singer/rhythm guitarist Glenn Frey and drummer/singer Don Henley were the most prominent members, Leadon’s contributions to early Eagles songs were vital to the unique sound that made this band so good.

After four years, Leadon quit the Eagles, reportedly unhappy with the direction in which the band was heading – towards more mainstream rock, and decidedly away from country rock. Marc Eliot wrote in his book ‘To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles’, that Leadon had also been unhappy about the in-fighting in the band and reduced personal income from publishing. Legend has it that Bernie quit the Eagles in dramatic fashion - he supposedly poured a bottle of beer on Glenn Frey’s head and walked out.

The Eagles replaced him with Joe Walsh, and continued to top the charts with successful albums and singles, while Leadon eventually moved to Nashville to work as a session musician and producer. It is a far less public lifestyle, but one that apparently suited him.

Leadon returned to play with the Eagles just once since his 1975 departure. In 1998, he joined the other six men that have been members of the Eagles on stage for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony – further validation to anyone that had not been paying attention that Bernie Leadon is one of the great guitar players of the rock era.

Southern rock bands are plain and simply guitar bands. It’s not that other rock bands don’t feature guitars, but there is something special about the sound produced by bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Blackfoot, and the Outlaws. Hughie Thomasson was the guy that started the Outlaws – known as the Florida Guitar Army, with their three-guitar attack.

Hughie wrote and sang Outlaws classics like ‘Green Grass and High Tides, ‘Hurry Sundown’, and ‘There Goes Another Love Song’.

“I used to think of us as a hard-rock version of The Eagles,” Thomasson told The Tampa Tribune.

Thomasson left the Outlaws in 1996 (essentially putting the group on indefinite hold) when he was asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd to replace Ed King as the ‘Fender guy’, a position previously held by Steve Gaines, and after Hughie, Mark Matejka.

“I had a great time doing it,” he said in an interview on ‘Classic’. “It got to the point where, OK, I want to sing more, write more. I want to do more Outlaws stuff.”

After nine years with Skynyrd, Thomasson re-formed the Outlaws. By 2007, the band had recorded a new studio album, produced by Hughie, an album that due to apparent legal difficulties has not yet been released. One would hope that the opposing parties would resolve their differences and figure out a way to get this album out. The Outlaws returned home from a tour in September ’07; the next day Hughie died at home, in his sleep while taking a nap in his chair, at age 55.

Although he spent nearly a decade in Lynyrd Skynyrd, he is best known as the driving force behind the Outlaws. One of their biggest songs was ‘Green Grass and High Tides’, a tribute to deceased rockers like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It may have been written about others who played music, but it now takes on a slightly different meaning with Hughie’s passing:

“Time and time again I've thanked them for a peace of mind
That helped me find myself amongst the music and the rhyme
That enchants you there…”

“Green grass and high tides forever.”

Thanks, Hughie, for giving us the “peace of mind” that we enjoy when we listen to your music.

© 2013 Larry Manch

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