meta-script'Bird And Diz' At 70: Inside Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie's Final Studio Date — An Everlasting Testament To Their Brotherhood | GRAMMY.com
'Bird And Diz' At 70: Inside Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie's Final Studio Date — An Everlasting Testament To Their Brotherhood
(L-R) Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker

Photos (L-R): Gilles Petard/Redferns, Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

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'Bird And Diz' At 70: Inside Charlie Parker & Dizzy Gillespie's Final Studio Date — An Everlasting Testament To Their Brotherhood

Five years after rewriting the rulebook, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie joined together one last time for 'Bird and Diz.' The album found both artists relaxed, matured, and prepared to write their names in history.

GRAMMYs/Nov 2, 2022 - 05:56 pm

As encapsulations of key 20th-century creative partnerships go, how monumental is the title Bird and Diz?

It's like calling an album Rodgers and Hammerstein, or Ellington and Strayhorn, or George and Ira Gershwin: this is a dyad of thunderous significance. As musical partners in the mid-1940s, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie unlocked harmonic, melodic and rhythmic equations that reshaped not just modern jazz, but all music. Although they could be polar opposites in showmanship and demeanor, their mutual love and respect was ironclad — they inspired and galvanized each other to innovative heights on stage and in the studio.

Which brings us to the only studio album to bear their nicknames. Bird and Diz was recorded in 1950, released in 1952 on 78 r.p.m. records via Clef Records, and turns 70 this year.

Therein, the Norman Granz-curated quintet of Parker on alto saxophone, Gillespie on trumpet, Thelonious Monk on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Buddy Rich on drums tackles Parker originals such as "Bloomdido," "Relaxin' With Lee," and "An Oscar for Treadwell," as well as an gorgeous arrangement of the popular ballad "My Melancholy Baby."

"Although they stopped working together regularly, whenever Parker and Gillespie got together to play, they renewed their partnership immediately," adds Parker biographer Carl Woideck, who authored Charlie Parker: His Music and Life. "Sparks flew. And that is certainly true of the album Bird and Diz."

"They definitely have distinct vocabularies, that in terms of improvising, can work together with each other," veteran trumpeter Brian Lynch tells GRAMMY.com. "But both have the same kind of intent."

For a listener, could this be the document between the two to start with? Arguably, yes. Was it the most conventional format for them? Absolutely not. The more you dig into its temporal and physical context, roster of accompanists, and place in both Parker and Gillespie's trajectories, the more Bird and Diz reveals itself to be a singular artifact.

This is so much so that modern scholars and musicians keep puzzling over Bird and Diz, for multiple reasons. Like: what does this tell us about Thelonious Monk, who appears here years before he was widely venerated as a leading light? Why was Buddy Rich on the record, when fellow drumming ingenue Roy Haynes might have been the more obvious choice? And what's the deal with "Leap Frog" — whose many burning alternate takes appear as highly variable bonus tracks?

All these questions and more remain pertinent, with varying degrees of satisfaction to the answers. But the headline of Bird and Diz is right there in the title: it's a snapshot of their world-beating collaboration at a very special moment.

CharlieParker

*Charlie Parker in 1953. Photo: Bob Parent/Getty Images*

A Rapprochement Of Innovators

When Parker and Gillespie ignited their musical partnership around 1945, the pair seemingly had no speed limit. Together, they dealt in harmonic, melodic and rhythmic complexity with an ear for dazzling beauty at a thousand miles per hour.

After recording and gigging extensively into 1946, they largely went their separate ways, save for the occasional co-appearance on the bandstand and an all-star, big-band date in 1949. But these were only captured in amateur recordings — not as proper studio dates like Bird and Diz.

Fast-forward a few years to 1950 — when Bird and Diz was recorded — and it was clear their artistry had matured significantly. Arguably, they no longer had anything to prove as artists; they could simply do what they did with full confidence in themselves and one other.

"Parker and Gillespie were no longer the hot new thing in jazz when they recorded Bird and Diz, but seasoned professionals who had known each other for a decade," Ted Gioia, who authored The History of Jazz and other books on the subject, tells GRAMMY.com. "Yes, they're still young in years, but veterans in every other way — and this comes across in the music.

"Even when Parker and Gillespie play fast and furious — as they often do on this date — there's still a sense of comfort and confidence at every juncture," he continues. "They act as if they have nothing to prove, even as they prove it on track after track."

"I think now people consider 'bebop' as something that is always fast," Champian Fulton, a New York-based jazz singer who paid tribute to Parker with her 2020 album Birdsong, tells GRAMMY.com. "But 'Bloomdido' and 'An Oscar for Treadwell' — those are really nice dance tempos. Everything is not burning. Even 'Leap Frog,' which is very fast, doesn't feel hurried or rushed or anything."

When Loren Schoenberg, a saxophonist and bandleader who's a Senior Scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, plays Bird and Diz for his students, he frames it in terms that anyone with even a general grasp of music can understand.

He lays out the difference between a predilection for daredevil feats and the relative restraint that age brings — even though Gillespie was in his early thirties, and Parker just at the threshold of 30.

DizzyGillespie

*Dizzy Gillespie in 1952. Photo: NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images*

"They do sound different, and it's not just the sound quality," Schoenberg tells GRAMMY.com, comparing Bird and Diz to early workouts like "Salt Peanuts" and "Hot House." "There's something in those early records of youth and 'We're going to rule the world,' just like a punk-rock band.

"It was something new and bizarre at the time for those people," he continues. "And then, here — even though it's only been five years — this feels almost like a more mature recalibration."

Given that Bird and Diz marked Parker and Gillespie's final studio session together, Schoenberg likens the record to the "last will and testament" of their collaboration. And it wasn't just a testimony to their rapport, but that of the entire band. "I think what united all these people with Buddy Rich was his absolute integrity — and Monk's, too," he adds.

And both men's appearances on Bird and Diz speak volumes about their places in the jazz cosmology — which, in many ways, were proximally closer than one might think.

NormanGranz

*Norman Granz in 1955. Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns*

Granz At The Helm

Upon being contacted for comment, Woideck mentioned that Bird and Diz was, fortuitously, on his mind that week. Specifically, he was curious why producer Norman Granz chose Buddy Rich to be behind the kit, rather than Roy Haynes.

But before broaching this question, he explains the cruciality of Granz to the album as a whole.

"Norman Granz was a maverick record label owner and concert presenter who had high standards as to the quality of the music presented, and to the setting where the music was presented," Woideck tells GRAMMY.com. So, what explained Granz's inclusion of Buddy Rich behind the kit, since he was not part of the working groups of Parker, Gillespie or Monk?

To that point, Woideck emails a scan of a DownBeat article from 1952 — headlined "Granz Wouldn't Let Me Record With Parker, Says Roy Haynes." 

The article goes on to quote Haynes: "Bird was under record contract to Norman. Before a session, he'd show Norman the list of musicians he'd like to use," the revered drummer explained. "Everything would be all right until he got to my name… The answer [as per Parker's preference] was on the paper, but Buddy always wound up on the date[.]"

"That answers it, really," Woideck concludes. "This was the preference of Norman Granz."

BuddyRich

*Buddy Rich in 1950. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images*

Rich Behind The Kit

Despite this on-the-record explanation — and Rich's often inspired performances on Bird and Diz — his presence on the album remains a bit of a flashpoint in the often insular world of jazz scholarship.

Because, as Schoenberg explains, Rich was of a far different sensibility than Parker and Gillespie.

"Although he's the same age [as Gillespie and Monk], he's really from a different generation, as brilliant a technician as he is," Schoenberg observes. "His playing doesn't have all the fill-ins of Max Roach and Roy Haynes and all those people… he's very active, but it's on a straight line."

This has been to the occasional chagrin of jazz gatekeepers. "If you're a bebop snob, you're supposed to complain about Buddy Rich playing on this date. After all, he is more of a big-band drummer, not a bopper," Gioia says. "But I can't agree with that assessment. Rich plays with total authority in this setting, and my only complaint is that he didn't make more records like this."

Veteran saxophonist Charles McPherson, who can be heard in the soundtrack of Clint Eastwood's 1988 biopic Bird, notes that the swing era that produced Rich — and led to the modern-jazz paradigm that Bird and Diz did a great deal to architect — were far from mutually exclusive.

"Bebop is just morphing; it's the natural evolution of the swing era," McPherson tells GRAMMY.com. "And then you've got Bird and Dizzy just a little younger, and it's their collective take on their swing heroes. When you change things just a little bit, voila: you have a bunch of these young guys that think similarly about harmony and rhythm."

McPherson notes the litany of connections between the "old" and "new" guards — a sometimes facile delineation. Among them are the foundational influence of trumpet pioneer Roy Eldridge on Gillespie, as well as Parker's reverence for the introspective tenor luminary Lester Young.

Likewise, to McPherson, the fact that Rich enthusiastically played with those who tore apart the swing rulebook was only natural. Still, this reality stands in contrast to how modern understanding tends to cleave apart those two eras.

"You've got to realize: what is the DNA? What is the etymology? What is the genesis of what we're talking about right now?" McPherson continues. "This categorizing of things — this in this box, as opposed to that box, and neither the twain shall meet."

"It's a natural piece of received wisdom that he was out of place on the record," Lynch says. "But nobody who could play drums that good is completely out of place on any record."

TheloniousMonk

*Thelonious Monk in 1960. Photo: Herb Snitzer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images*

A Rising Monk: No "Lesser Light"

The problem of categorization also applies to Monk, albeit in a different way. Given his modern-day stature as an American original close to Parker and Gillespie in musical importance, it's striking to read Granz's contemporaneous album notes, where he describes Monk as a "lesser light."

In context, this makes a certain amount of sense. As Woideck points out, Monk was an underground figure in 1950 — and would remain so for at least five more years. But, regardless, his playing is exceptional on Bird and Diz — in equal parts elusive, idiosyncratic and capacious.

While Monk and Rich are rarely evoked in the same breath outside of this context, it's worth noting one major connection — they were both born in 1917, so they occupied the same temporal space in jazz history. Partly for this reason, they're simpatico in this setting.

"Monk and Buddy Rich wind up being brothers in rhythm," Schoenberg says. "That's a combination that most people would never, ever think would work."

But it certainly did, as Schoenberg explained in The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz in 2002. "They merge in a wonderfully stark fashion," he wrote, "the common denominator being their superb time and mastery of the idiom."

As Schoenberg continues to GRAMMY.com, Monk in 1950 played drastically differently than the piano players that Bird and Diz typically hired.

"It's so strange and pointillistic and full of space. They're breathing," he continues. "It's like they're in a gravity field, and it throws their solos and the music into some kind of stark, stark [relief]." As an example, Schoenberg points to Monk's interplay with the headlining pair on "Relaxin' With Lee" — an iteration of Edgar Sampson's 1933 jazz standard "Stompin' at the Savoy."

"Just the treat of hearing Buddy Rich and Thelonious Monk in the same rhythm section is worth the price of admission," Gioia says. "I love Bird and Diz, but I'd wait in line for an hour just for one more chance to hear Monk and Rich."

CurlyRussell

*Curly Russell behind saxophonist Allen Eager. Photo: William Gottlieb/Redferns*

The Importance Of Curly Russell

Not everyone on Bird and Diz was an innovator. But this is no slight to the totally serviceable, reliable, by-all-accounts-well-liked Curly Russell.

"I get asked this question of many musicians of that generation: 'Why was he there?'" Schoenberg says. "We've got Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford [at this time], and even Tommy Potter's better than him… the bass lines are more schooled."

But there was a very good reason Russell was there: his personality and grounding presence. "Everybody loved him and he swung and he could just do it," Schoenberg adds, paraphrasing an unnamed associate who played with Russell frequently: "If he was there, everything was going to be fine."

When considering Russell, it's worth noting that if all musicians were breaking boundaries at all times, music would become overwhelming and exhausting.

Speaking about tenor saxophone giant Hank Mobley for GRAMMY.com in 2020, fellow tenorman Jeff Lederer made an observation that totally applies to Russell — and all the other perfectly decent musicians like him.

"Jazz is a folk music. It's not a science. It's music that has come out of a culture," Lederer said. "While there are artists that will want to innovate all the time, there's also a really special place for artists who speak and transmit the language and don't feel the need to completely change up what the fundamentals of the music that they love are."

While Schoenberg leaves Russell out of the conversation about titanic presences on Bird and Diz, he means that as no insult. 

"I don't think his role is that significant, but not doing the bad thing is worth a million dollars," he says. "The pilot lands the plane; I'm thrilled. I don't care if there's somebody better. He landed it, and we got there — thank you very much."

Flying Forward And Backward

Let's say you've absorbed the original Bird and Diz album — and all those acrobatic outtakes of "Leap Frog" that you can find on streaming services. To further understand the musical brotherhood of Parker and Gillespie, where should you go from here?

Schoenberg points out that within months of this record date, Gillespie would make overtly commercial recordings with a young John Coltrane, and Parker would make a similar swing for a wider audience with his sumptuous Bird with Strings album — where Rich was the drummer.

The troubled and addicted Parker passed away in 1955 at just 34; Gillespie kept working and evolving until his death in 1993. So, to effectively frame Bird and Diz in history, Schoenberg recommends going back to the early days, when the pair burst forth with cocky, youthful, inventive energy — such as on The Legendary Town Hall Concert New York 1945.

But in the end, it's up to you; you can embark on a Bird journey, a Diz journey, or continue plumbing the alchemy they established together. And Bird and Diz stands as a fine and proper gateway to all of it — not only for the playing, or the material, or the unique meeting of minds, but for the intent behind it all.

"It's hard for younger people to realize what a record date meant in those days," Schoenberg concludes. "That was your epitaph; that was your legacy. It was a very serious thing." 

And these two pioneers didn't just "understand the assignment," in modern parlance; they left an imprint that hasn't weathered one iota. Laying waste to the barriers of time, technology and transforming tastes, the legacy Bird and Diz blueprinted together has leapfrogged through the ages.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

**Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?**

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List