meta-scriptLiving Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever | GRAMMY.com
Living Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever
Devo circa 1980. From left: Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, Alan Myers and Bob Casale

PHOTO: Michael Heeg/Courtesy of Devo

interview

Living Legends: Devo Subverted The Herd Mentality Beginning In The '70s, But Their Art Punk Aesthetic Is More Relevant Than Ever

Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale discuss the evolution of devolution, and the video revolution they helped whip into reality: "We drew a line in the sand, and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo"

GRAMMYs/Apr 20, 2022 - 01:53 pm

Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, members of seminal new wave/post-punk band Devo, who challenged the status quo with irreverent, catchy songs.

The average music fan thinks of dome-shaped headpieces and whipping it good on the dance floor when they hear the name Devo, but for an entire generation of music lovers, the four-letter moniker means something much more. 

The Akron, Ohio art rock band formed in 1973 to spread a message about societal regression, driven by herd mentality and negative cultural influences (the name is short for "de-evolution"). The music they created was infectiously fun, with catchy choruses and a synth-driven futuristic energy that fit in perfectly with the new wave genre that was becoming popular in the early '80s. But behind the campy outfits and colorful videos, there was a nonconformist message — which the band managed to maintain even at the height of their popularity.    

From the science aesthetics of Q: Are We Not Men, A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Duty Now for the Future (1979), to the subversive empowerment of Freedom of Choice (1980) and

New Traditionalists (1981), Devo approached their output as a sardonic experiment. Their sometimes deceptive lyrical simplicity and sonic nuances created alchemy, and their charisma individually and as a unit made for a compelling blend of nerd rock meets post-punk. 

Devo’s dynamic videos always had a message driving the madcap imagery and ideas. Maybe even more than Sparks, who were touted as "your favorite band’s favorite band" in their recent hit bio-doc, Devo’s influence on music is substantial, with everyone from Talking Heads to David Bowie (who helped discover them) taking obvious cues over the years. If some thought Devo a novelty act, they proved otherwise a long time ago.

As Devo celebrates the 40th anniversary of their fifth album Oh No! It’s Devo this month  (as well as their third nomination for consideration into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame), they are also cementing their legacy as a band who call out the ills of the world in their music and actively work to change them, too. Throughout the month of April, Devo will donate all proceeds from their catalog to aid Ukraine. The band also have a top slot on the highly-anticipated Cruel World music festival in Los Angeles this May, which some have nicknamed "Gothchella" thanks to its darkly nostalgic, '80s-heavy lineup.

GRAMMY.com spoke with the band’s lead visionaries — Mark Mothersbaugh (vocals, keyboards) and Gerald “Jerry” Casale (vocals, bass) — via Zoom to discuss their formation and influential career.

The story of how Devo emerged as a force in music includes some very big names, including David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Can you share how they and others had a hand in your early success?

Jerry Casale: We popped up on the radar through many efforts that we made, and they finally succeeded in paying off, where Iggy became aware of us and we spoke with him in Cleveland, when he was playing on the Idiot tour and David Bowie was playing keyboards for him. We got him a demo cassette, and you would assume those things go in the wastebasket, because I know how that is when you're on tour…. He actually listened to it and Dean Stockwell and Toni Basil, who I had also gotten to, they talked to Iggy about it. He played it for David Bowie. 

So then David Bowie heard it, and told Iggy to put me in touch with David's lawyer Stan Diamond in L.A. and we started a dialogue. Then Toni and Dean played it for Neil Young in San Francisco about the same time. So then [Young] called up and wanted us to be in his film, Human Highway. And it all started snowballing. 

We did everything we could, and that was a do it yourself aesthetic. Back then, there was no internet…. We sent packages to Saturday Night Live over and over too, with the videos and the songs because we loved that program and we wanted to be selected to play on it. Of course there was no chance in reality that Devo was going to be able to do that then. That took having a manager and a label. We got on Saturday Night Live in October of 1978. 

It’s been over 40 years since Devo became hitmakers and you are still getting recognition for your work. In a general sense, what do awards and honors mean to you at this point in your career?

Mark Mothersbaugh: You know, it's nice to be recognized. We're in a business where there's always somebody younger, somebody cuter, somebody who got there faster, somebody who's getting paid more, somebody who had a bigger hit —  there's all these things that figure into people wondering, Where am I? How am I doing? Did anybody pay attention? So it's kind of really nice. 

Casale: I think that any artist would have to be a bit dishonest if they said they didn't like the fact that they are being recognized by some official organization or outside body of self-proclaimed gatekeepers. Yeah. It does mean something. I mean, my God, when you're a performer, you get up in front of people. Think of the nerve it takes to get up in front of people, like, why should people watch you? You were looking for approval, right? From the time you're a kid, you're looking for approval. 

In 1985, Devo was nominated for a GRAMMY for your video work, which was always such a big aspect of what the band was about.

Casale: Yeah, it sure was. I directed all those videos, and from the beginning, was kind of spearheading the visual aspect of Devo. We had agreed that it was going to be a multimedia kind of experimental art collective. So from the beginning that was very intentional. 

For those of us who belong to "Generation X," Devo are a very significant band, especially the album Freedom of Choice and the releases that came after. Do you hear a lot from fans of different ages about how formative you were to them?

Mothersbaugh: I have two daughters and I watch them and what things help them figure out what's going on in the world. Music plays a big part of that. I do get those letters and I meet those people at our shows, and, yeah, I like that. That's kind of sweet. For me, it was the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And, you know, for them, it's Devo and that tickles me. 

Casale: We were very polarizing without even wanting to be, but we just were. Because of the way we looked, the way we sounded, the way we acted and what we said. We drew a line in the sand and either you hated Devo or you loved Devo. So a lot of young fans would all tell us the same story about how they got harassed or beat up or made fun of in school because they liked Devo. We inspired a lot of people to start bands, and a lot of bands that came after us that we respect have cited us as an influence. So we were an artist’s artist. That's heartening.

How did you two come together?

Mothersbaugh: When I met Jerry at Kent State University, he was a grad student and I was a sophomore. We collaborated early on on visual things. He had come up to me and said "Are you the guy that's sticking up pictures of art and astronauts holding potatoes standing on the moon?" And I go, "Yeah, what of it?" He goes, "What does a potato mean to you?" I really liked that for an opening conversation. 

Before there was a word for posting up art or graffiti, before there was Shepard Fairey, I was a teen who was posting artwork around school at Kent State. I don't know why I did it, but I had to do it for some reason. So that's how we met.  We were visual artists, and we collaborated on visual projects. He liked that I was making these decals that stuck on things, and he liked that I liked potatoes. So I made these potato decals for him for his senior graduation class project… that he hung all over photos he’d blown up from his high school yearbook of different kids he didn't like.

What is the significance of the potato?

Mothersbaugh: We were trying to figure out, who are we? And how do we fit into the world? We were both the kids of working class parents, and we decided we weren't asparagus people or part of the elite or the rich, we were like potatoes. We were like spuds. We were like asymmetrical, not very good looking vegetables that came from underground. But they were a staple of everybody's diet in the USA. 

The interesting thing about potatoes for us, it's like, potatoes have eyes all around, so they see everything. So we called ourselves spuds, and we used that term in exchange for comrades or mates.

In terms of presentation and imagery, including costume, your most iconic has to be the red dome hats. How did the idea for those come about?

Casale: The inspiration for the design came from an Art Deco 1930’s ceiling fixture. So imagine a milk glass-like fixture that looked like a dome hanging from three chains on the ceiling with a bowl. But upside down, right? I used to just stare at that when I was a kid in my grade school and I always thought it was such a cool image. 

And so years later, when we were talking about Devo wearing some kind of headgear, I kept thinking of that. Making them red and making them plastic and wearing them became a thing. Then we could make multiples and we could sell them to people because people wanted them. In fact, people were stealing them. So we started selling them. 

Devo had chart-topping success but the project was always sort of out of the box and different, even weird to some. Now bands like yours seem to finally be getting the recognition they deserve.

Mothersbaugh: Because Devo had content. A lot of the bands that were out at the same time as Devo, you could just kind of group them together. We had a concept that was unique, not just only for the time period we were in, but actually, for a much bigger time period of rock and roll. 

Just even questioning man's central glory on the planet. We kind of pose the question that maybe humans, we're not the best species on the planet; maybe we’re the only insane species. We might be the only organisms out of touch with nature and destructive, as opposed to being a symbiotic part of everything. And you know, that didn't win friends and a lot of people took offense to that. They're usually the people that should take offense to it, because we were probably talking about them. 

So we had a pretty unique concept, and it was what we wrote our music about. I think there are a lot of artists out there that respect that or understand that. 

Casale: The test of time proved that those bands weren't so weird after all. I mean, look in the '60s, '70s and '80s: Those three decades, there was an explosion of diversity — of creativity, of technology, of new ideas, new sounds, and groups who performed a body of work well. If you bought a record because you liked one song on that record, you probably ended up liking five or six songs on that record, because it was a piece and all connected. 

I think that's what kids today miss. They miss that reality. There were real groups, and real artists that did something with a whole body of work that mattered. And it was exciting. The packaging mattered and what the artist said mattered. We had MTV playing the videos. So [the '80s were] like the last decade where this explosion of Western culture was exciting, at the top of its game. That was the end, then it started to devolve and decline.

In addition to its statement- minded subtext, your early stuff was so atmospheric and that seems to have led you both down cinematic paths later in your careers, Mark with your scoring of shows like "Pee-Wee’s Playhouse" and "Rugrats," and appearance on the kids show "Yo Gabba Gabba," and Jerry with your directorial work.

Casale: Devo was kind of put on ice in the '90s and Mark wasn't interested in doing anything except scoring and composing for TV. Because I had directed like 20 Devo videos, [I started] directing videos for other bands. 

So I had a whole music video career as a director for bands like Rush, Soundgarden and Foo Fighters — the first video they ever made. They were anti-video because all the grunge bands were anti-video, but Dave Grohl said, "You know what, if we have to do one, let's get that guy from Devo because I can trust him because he's been in my position as a band member on stage, so he won't make us do foolish things." That led me to commercials. So then I had this whole directing career doing TV commercials up until about 2005, when it kind of trickled out as the business changed a lot and the money went away.

Mothersbaugh: I can tell how old somebody is when they say, "Oh, I really like your music," and they're talking about they're talking about "Rugrats" or "Pee Wee's Playhouse." And if they're talking about Devo, they probably have gray hair. Except for kids, because the internet is this amazing place. They’ve got the whole world right there in their hands.

So yeah, now we get people of all ages, asking about Devo, who are knowledgeable about it. So that's kind of interesting. In the early days we sounded like some sort of outer space version of Captain Beefheart mixed with Sun Ra or something like that. Jerry and I always thought about sound and vision.

One of the things we learned at Kent State was protesting isn't the way to change things in this country, because when they get tired of you, and when the government finally is irritated enough, they just shoot you. Like they did at my school. So we thought, who's changing things…and we were looking around and we thought… Madison Avenue, that's who changes the world. They get you to buy stupid cars, eat food that's not good for you, buy clothes you don't need and you're happy at the end of it. 

We just thought well, what if we use those techniques in reverse, and figured out a way to talk to people about reverse evolution, talk to people about how to change the trajectory of the planet. We looked for ways to add hooks into our songs but our whole idea was just to get people to come in, find out what we were. If they liked the song, they’d buy the album, and then they'd listen to the album and hear “Jocko Homo” and or they'd hear “Too Much Paranoia,” or they'd hear the last line in a “Beautiful World": "It's a beautiful world for you, for you, but not for me." And the videos were made to show that. 

Your devolution message has sadly never been more relevant.

Mothersbaugh: I agree that the world has devolved. It's even more complicated than ever to find out the truth about things. Jerry likes to call Devo, "the band playing on the Titanic while it goes down." 

I'm the eternal optimist. I keep wanting to think that between technology and just people becoming aware of where we are, you know, that they can figure out ways to turn things around. So I like that our music is being listened to and I hope it has a positive effect on people.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Living Legends: Andrea Bocelli On His Favorite Duets & What Keeps Him Inspired 30 Years Later
Andrea Bocelli

Photo: Courtesy of Andrea Bocelli

interview

Living Legends: Andrea Bocelli On His Favorite Duets & What Keeps Him Inspired 30 Years Later

In an interview with GRAMMY.com, beloved vocalist Andrea Bocelli discusses his enduring success, the collaborative process, and releasing the deluxe edition of his new album, 'A Family Christmas.'

GRAMMYs/Dec 20, 2023 - 03:52 pm

As one of the world’s most beloved vocalists, the Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli has built a legendary career over 15 solo albums, a regular schedule of blockbuster tours and five GRAMMY nominations, most recently for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Si in 2020.

Originally setting his dreams onto a career as a soccer player, life set Bocelli on a new path after a mishap playing the sport resulted in the loss of his vision. Worldwide stardom came after his musical success in his native Italy, and since the release of his debut album in 1994, he’s staked a claim as one of the best-selling artists of all time. 

It’s a legacy that continues with the recent release of the deluxe edition of his album A Family Christmas. Originally released to acclaim last year, it features his children Virginia and Matteo; the updated version is composed of 10 new tracks, including the single “Let It Snow.”

Bocelli spoke to GRAMMY.com about the new album, his current nationwide tour and the album that first turned him into a global sensation: “The result went beyond my wildest dreams.” 

A Family Christmas features your kids Virginia and Matteo. Over the years, you also recorded blockbuster duets with everyone from Tony Bennett and Beyonce, Ed Sheeran and Celine Dion, among many others. Can you point out the most memorable duet of your career?

I wouldn’t mention one in particular, to not offend the others. As you know, I love duets; mixing voices is a challenge, a wager, a meeting of souls. Singing together, either opera or pop music, is always a gratifying experience. In my thirty-year career, I have had the honor to sing with extraordinary artists, from the already mentioned Celine Dion to Barbra Streisand, from Stevie Wonder to the unforgettable Tony Bennett. In the lyrical world, I hold close to my heart the memory and privilege of making music with Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti.

You were nominated for the Best New Artist GRAMMY in 1999. What do you remember about that show, and your introduction to America in general?

I remember, with great emotion, the duet that my dearest friend, Celine Dion, and I sang together, interpreting that little masterpiece that was “The Prayer”, written by another great friend of mine, David Foster. A very intense relationship with the United States was taking shape at the time, and then followed a continuous upward curve, to the extent that today I consider it my second home. This extraordinary country immediately showed me love!

You're currently on tour, and are known for your epic performances and specials, whether performing in Milan's Duomo or riding horseback across the country. How do you come up with these ideas? Is the idea to go bigger and bigger, or did these just happen organically? 

The source of my inspiration is always the same, and I can summarize it in one word: love. Love across the board: sensual love, love for life, for beauty, for the brotherhood that unites us, and for He who created us.

I believe that there is a purpose conceived for each one of us. Every life is a story that reflects a specific plan. Every woman, every man is born with a talent that is a gift by heavenly design. It is up to our conscience, to our free will to cultivate and honor it or vice versa squander it.

I personally tried to honor mine, making my voice available to share values, such as love, optimism and brotherhood. After that, everything is in the hands of our good Lord, so what I do is look up to the heavens every day and give thanks, ask for help, pray and whisper, “Your will be done.”

Romanza is one of the best selling albums of all time. When you were recording it, did you feel it was going to be something special — or did its success take you by surprise?

I experienced alternating feelings of hope and disappointment. People appreciated my singing and proved it to me consistently. It was show business itself that didn’t consider me a marketable “product.” I was often told, “you better find a new job.” There were so many potential opportunities lost by a breath, and considering the fact that I was no longer a young artist, at times my expectations of transforming this passion of mine into a profession were truly dim.

How did that change?

When Romanza was released, I, of course, aspired to find my own audience, be it in pop or opera. The result went beyond my wildest dreams, beyond my rosiest and most passionate expectations. This recording project holds within it a very important part of my own personal and professional story. To date, I find it hard to understand the reasons for such an overwhelming success, despite realizing that its songs still today, after so many years, are capable of communicating intense, uplifting emotions.

Do you know right away how to musically interpret a song, or is there a process?

There is always a long, complex and challenging process of reflection and elaboration. There is a first phase of listening to the entire interpreted narrative of the song. Then comes the creative phase, alternating with an analytical phase for the end result, with a constant fine-tuning of the vocal and instrumental solutions.

I must say that I consider this deluxe version of the Christmas album, with extra songs, special for personal reasons. Mainly because I was able to work with my children. But also for its innovative recording, orchestral arrangements and the creative process. For each song, we started off with the piano using a felt to dampen the sound. Then it was overwritten by classical and pop instrumentation, always looking to create sculpted sounds for each individual piece. Everything was first sampled, then recorded with a full orchestra.

When it comes to putting the Christmas album specifically, how do you find fresh songs to cover and interpret?  The classics have been covered countless times.

After evaluating hundreds of songs, we chose [together with our record label team] the most intense; the ones capable of evoking the Christmas spirit we were looking for. It is, in some ways, an unusual selection, inspired by the sentiment of universal solidarity. It is a phonic kaleidoscope of international songs, alternating celebratory and festive tones with more intimate and reflective ones.

The album is the genuine musical product of a family dedicated to all families. In it are three voices, three stages of life, three inevitably different sensitivities (despite our strong emotional ties) competing in a mix of genres, but at the same time, looking to recreate that magical state of mind that Holy Christmas can give us. This is what A Family Christmas is about: an album that is markedly different from the one I released in 2009, because it has a more modern and diversified track, with original and bespoke arrangements, fully adapted to our different voices.

Speaking of covers, your version of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" is very unique. Can you tell me the story behind choosing that, and the arrangement?

The atmosphere created with this arrangement, and through the timbre and expressiveness of Matteo's voice offer a truly different, and I hope, interesting rendering. A decisive contribution to creating this and other songs comes from two extraordinary professionals, Ross Cullum and Stephan Moccio. Both worked in all of the vocal recording sessions, with meticulous and very refined precision on the choice of tonality, rhythm, dynamics, the vocal range of the scores, and orchestral colors.

What songs get the biggest reaction on your current tour?

It's actually hard to give a ranking of my most liked songs. Of course, songs tied to the imminent Christmas festivities warm the heart and are received with joy. But warm reactions are also generated by my operatic repertory with its most famous and beloved arias, as do also my pop classics.

The U.S. public, that I have the honor to have frequented for a quarter of a century, is, to my mind, the ideal audience. It's upbeat, generous, ready to get involved. It's an audience that can still get emotional, can participate and be responsive to what is happening on stage. It can experience with healthy simplicity and enthusiasm the emotions generated by listening. 

You uniquely weave your charitable foundation in with your shows. What's it like trying to think of fresh ideas for your foundation? Do you have fun with it?

The Andrea Bocelli Foundation was established in 2011. With the mission to empower people and communities, we chose education as a true key to offer people and communities the opportunity to live to their full potential. We do so by trying to be innovative in approach and planning our work with a multi-disciplinary team of professionals and consultants coming from different backgrounds and aligned with global objectives, such as the UN 2030 Agenda. We use tools and informal disciplines like art or digital music and promote the development of cross-cutting skills. For this reason, the Permanent Mission of Italy to the United Nations invited us to bring our expertise and best practices to the UN this December in recognition of our work as meaningful and innovative.

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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

video

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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Living Legends: Frankie Valli On The Four Seasons' Biggest Hits, Impressing Bob Dylan And Inspiring Billy Joel & Elton John
Frankie Valli

Photo: Varela Media

interview

Living Legends: Frankie Valli On The Four Seasons' Biggest Hits, Impressing Bob Dylan And Inspiring Billy Joel & Elton John

Between a new box set and a Las Vegas residency, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons aren’t slowing down in 2023. Hear from the falsetto king himself about how hits like “Sherry” and “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!) came to be — and how they live on.

GRAMMYs/Oct 3, 2023 - 02:53 pm

With one of the most recognizable voices in music, a generation-spanning array of hit songs and a life story that has become stuff of legend, Frankie Valli has staked a claim as one of the music industry's most indelible artists. One of the few acts that steadily navigated from the doo-wop age through the disco era, Valli's improbable trajectory with his group, the Four Seasons, was propeled by a golden ear for hits, aided by the songwriter/producer power duo Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe.

That's not to say the 89-year-old is resting on his laurels. His astounding career is on full, vibrant display in the immense new box set aptly dubbed Working Our Way Back to You — The Ultimate Collection. Consisting of 45 discs of every song Valli and the Four Seasons ever recorded — from beloved hits to deep-cuts, demos and other rarities — the set also includes a biographical book filled to the brim with rare images that track their rise from a fledgling New Jersey singing group to Broadway sensations in the form of Jersey Boys.

In addition, later this month Vailli is heading to Las Vegas for a residency at Westgate Resort and Casino where he and the Four Seasons will be appearing until well into 2024.

Valli spoke to GRAMMY.com about his astounding run of hits, the artists he's influenced, the modern covers of his tracks and how his big year started off with a bang during GRAMMY weekend.

You were a surprise performer at the Clive Davis GRAMMY Gala earlier this year and, in a very special moment, everyone in the audience, from Cardi B to Joni Mitchell, jumped up and sang along with you to "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." What was that moment like for you?

Oh, it was incredible. I never expected it. When Clive first invited me, he said "I want to invite you to my GRAMMY party, but I want you to do a song." I said, "With the generation gap, should I really do a song?" But I was in shock when everybody stood up to sing along. 

It was a really a moment I'll never forget. It's a good thing we have people like Clive who really has an insight on what's happening and where it's going. 

That night, the Italian rock band Måneksin covered your song "Beggin'" which was their breakout hit. The band was just the latest in a long line of artists who have covered Four Seasons music, with "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" done by everyone from Lauryn Hill to Shawn Mendes, to name just two examples. What do you think of all of these artists wanting to cover your work?

It's quite complimentary. When you've been around a long time and people find value in what you've done, it just makes you feel good about what you've done.

In your career, you've also covered so many songs from Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)." How did you go about choosing which songs to cover, and how would you put your own spin on these classics to make them your own?

It was really more or less music that we listened to and we loved. We tried to pick songs that were very meaningful for us, but the trick was to be able to do them a little differently than they had been done. 

We were quite successful with it, we did it with songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" We did a version of "Book of Love" and so many others.

Your version of "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)" is probably one of the most unusual songs in your vast discography considering its subject matter, your exaggerated falsetto, and those background harmonies. How did that come about? I also understand you heard from Bob Dylan himself about it.

We did it in a very campy way, and it really was quite by accident. I was in a studio, and the guy at the soundboard asked me to sing a little bit to get a level on me. So I was clowning around singing in a falsetto like that.

The next thing I know, the button clicks and I hear [Crewe and Gaudio's] voices saying, "Do it like that." I said, "Do what like what?" They said, "Sing it just the way you're singing it." I said, "Come on, you're kidding!" 

We did it and that version of it was a take-off on a singer named Rose Murphy, who had several hits. Many years later, I was shopping at Fred Segal in LA and Bob Dylan came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. We shook hands and he said, "I love the version of 'Don't Think Twice' that you guys did."

Speaking of your singular vocal stylings, I'm wondering how you and the group went about plotting how you'd all harmonize. For example, in a song like "Candy Girl," there's your iconic falsetto, and then suddenly we hear in a very low baritone voice the line "Our love is real!" Is something like that written out? How does it come together in the studio?

It just comes naturally. A lot of credit goes to the fact that we were never chased away from a song because we didn't know what to do with it. We toyed with it until we found what we thought was right for it. There were no direct plans; everything was done from within the group. 

Nick Massi had his job doing a lot of the vocal arrangements, and Gaudio did most of them after Nick had left. We worked together until everybody was satisfied with it. Does it fit? Does it work? It's like a puzzle. You don't want to overdo anything, and you don't want to under-do.

So then let's say in a song like "Walk Like A Man" when the harmonies sing that iconic "Oo-Oooo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Ooooo." Where does that come from?

It comes from Bob Gaudio, who wrote the song to sound like that. The first three songs we did were more like a chant, and that's what we created to make what everybody knows as our sound. 

We wanted to be very easily identifiable. If you heard something by us on the radio, you knew that it was us. We were constantly looking for new ways and new things while having fun doing it. We weren't following or listening to anybody else on the radio; we weren't a copycat group. 

Billy Joel has gone on to say that a lot of the inspiration he got came from us. "I love you just the way you are" is the last line in "Rag Doll."

He also said that "Uptown Girl" was an homage to you. Musically it sounds like "Big Girls Don't Cry" but lyrically it's the opposite of "Rag Doll." What do you think when you hear a song like that?

First of all, I'm a big Billy Joel fan. There isn't anything he's ever done that I haven't liked. My favorite of everything is "Just The Way You Are." It sounds so honest and lyrically it's so right, it had to be a hit.

What about a song like "Bennie and the Jets"? It's been said that Elton John was directly inspired by you.

I loved it. He's another guy who has done very little wrong musically. He's an amazing writer and performer. 

You and the group have a lot of name songs: "Sherry," "Marlena," "Dawn." Was that conscious effort, or was it just natural?

It was natural. Bob wrote the songs… He and I have been partners now for over 50 years and he never ceases to amaze me. He's so tuned into everything that's going on, it's really amazing.

Is it true that "Sherry" was originally called "Jackie" in honor of Jackie Kennedy?

No, it was originally called "Perry." Before "Sherry," we weren't signed to a label, so this small independent company owned by a millionaire had a daughter named Perry. And that's what he wanted us to call it, but it was written to be "Sherry" and we just felt very strongly about that and kept it.

What did the owner think of that?

We ended up going with a different company. So we never heard much after that.

One of your biggest hits was "December 1963 (Oh What A Night!)." I always wondered if that was a random date, or if you chose it because that period was a unique moment in history: a month after the Kennedy assassination, but two months before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. 

It was originally a song with lyrics about the '20s, '30s and '40s. The lyrics were "Flippers flopping on the floor." It was a totally different song. When Bob brought it into the studio, he was disappointed we weren't crazy about it and he wanted to junk the song. We said, "No, you can come up with something better than this," and he rewrote it to fit the time. 

Is there one song that you thought should have been bigger than it was?

The funny thing about records during the days when we recorded, and the record business was as big as it was, to become a hit it was important that the record company do the legwork and get radio stations to play it, or try it for two weeks. I thought there was a lot of what we did that was overlooked because the record company wasn't that crazy about it. 

For example, I put the single "We're All Alone" out, and the record company didn't want to work it. I did mine with the London Symphony Orchestra. Later, Rita Coolidge came out with the same song and it went to No. 1. Sometimes things like that happen.

A song like "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" was in the can for two or three years. We had to force the record company to release it and hire independent promotion people to work the record and get it on the radio. 

"My Eyes Adored You" was recorded for Motown Records and that one was in the can for three years because they weren't too sure about it. Finally, when we left Motown, we asked if we can buy back the track, and they agreed for us to purchase it. We did and we brought it to every record company in the business and they all said no. 

Eventually, we found Larry Uttal with a brand new record company, Private Stock Records, and he said, "That'll be my first No. 1 record for my new company." And it was!  

From when you first started recording in the early '50s to when "Sherry" hit No. 1 was a period of nine years. That's a long time. Why did you stick with it? 

It was always music first. If I had no success at all, I'd probably still be doing music somewhere in New Jersey or New York. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and wanted to be. 

At first, I rejected the fact that I might have to do pop music, but as I started to do it and it became successful, I realized it was a music that people could understand. And what are you doing music for? You're doing it for people. Without an audience you wouldn't have anything. 

My love of music started out for the very first time with me seeing Frank Sinatra as a boy when my mom took me to the Paramount Theater in New York City. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I was so inspired; I made up my mind that that's what I wanted to do. 

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Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music
Burning Spear

Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage

interview

Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music

Burning Spear is one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years into his career, the roots reggae artist continues to share messages of Rastafarianism and resistance, all through impeccably crafted rhythms.

GRAMMYs/Sep 15, 2023 - 06:56 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with reggae icon Burning Spear. His latest album, No Destroyer, is his first release in 15 years. 

Fifty years ago, venerable Jamaican artist Burning Spear released his debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear. While not as well-known as the WailersCatch A Fire and Burnin’ (both of which were also released in 1973), Burning Spear is nonetheless a pillar in the construction of roots reggae’s foundation. 

Produced by Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd and released on Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, the album’s solid rhythms are anchored in thunderous basslines (played by the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles) and embellished with cascading horns that majestically frame Spear’s mesmerizingly intoned vocals.

Rife with mystical lyrics steeped in his Rastafarian way of life, uncompromising words of resistance, and supported by impeccably crafted bass-heavy reggae beats with flourishes of jazz and highlife accented horns, Burning Spear’s debut album ­­established him as one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years on, those characteristics resonate just as strongly on Spear’s latest release No Destroyer.

Recorded in 2011 at the Magic Shop in New York City, Spear decided to release No Destroyer — his first album since 2009’s GRAMMY-winning Jah Is Real — in August because "the time was right." 

"I think people will enjoy this album, I am saying things I never say before," Burning Spear told GRAMMY.com in a recent Zoom. "The people, the fans, will find something to hold on to, to take them places or to certain situations. The album shows you where you are coming from, your tribulations, the distance you are traveling. When I listen back to it, I didn’t quite know I was putting out all that energy, sending out lyrics not only connecting musically but connecting to all the people." 

Burning Spear announced his retirement in 2016, though his time away was brief. He returned in 2021 with a new single "Mommy," which honors women who hold their families together, especially in challenging times; "Mommy" was No Destroyer’s first single. In 2022 Spear returned to the concert stage and has since performed at festivals across the globe and onboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock reggae cruise. 

"I wasn’t thinking about coming back but my wife, Sonia Rodney, thought I should do a few shows here and there, for the fans who have supported I man for so many years,"  Spear acknowledges."So I did some shows for the people who really wanted to see me again and it was great." Spear, however, has not performed in his native Jamaica in nearly 20 years. "I do go back to Jamaica to spend time and have a little fun but that is about it," he says. 

Born Winston Rodney in Jamaica’s rural St. Ann’s Bay, Winston took his moniker from African freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, who was previously known as the Burning Spear and later became the president of Kenya. Kenyatta and Spear were deeply influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the St. Ann Jamaica born pan-Africanist and fiery orator who preached self-reliance and political unification for all African descendants. Garvey’s teachings have exerted a tremendous influence on the Rastafari way of life and the United States’ civil rights movement.  

More so than any Rastafarian reggae artist, Spear has used his music to create an ongoing awareness of Garvey’s philosophies. Spear’s international breakthrough arrived with the release of his Marcus Garvey album in 1975; Spear has continued to invoke Garvey’s name on all of his subsequent albums. Prior to reggae becoming the island’s most recognized global export, Marcus Garvey "opened the door of Jamaica and spread Jamaica all over," sings Spear on the No Destroyer track "Jamaica."

"Marcus Garvey is our hero, he stood firm, he opened the gate for Jamaica, Rastafari spread the roots and the culture," offers Spear. "I would especially like Jamaican people to listen to the track 'Jamaica' and as Jamaicans of African descendents, question themselves. Of course, the whole world needs to listen to the album, too."

Burning Spear was referred to Studio One — largely considered Jamaica’s Motown due to the label’s consistent output of hit records and the many reggae luminaries who launched their careers there — by another St. Ann native: Bob Marley. Spear’s first single for Studio One, 1969’s "Door Peep Shall Not Enter," sounded unlike anything released by Dodd. Along with vocal trio the Abyssinians’ "Satta Massagana" issued the same year, Spear’s song was critical in shaping the Rastafarian roots reggae movement that came to prominence in the next decade. 

Spear’s spoken intro on "Door Peep" — "I and I, son of the Most-High, Jah Rastafari"— resounds like a direct announcement from the Messiah. The song’s biblically laced lyrics caution informers who attempt to interfere with Rastafarians, considered societal outcasts at the time in Jamaica; Spear’s repeated call to "Chant down Babylon," supported by Rupert Willington’s evocative, deep vocal tone, creates a spellbinding effect.

"When Mr. Dodd first heard 'Door Peep' he was astonished; for a man who’d been in the music business for so long, he never heard anything like that," Spear. recalls. "I went there on a Sunday and the next day I recorded it, my first song, my first time recording. Mr. Dodd made a lot of income off of that song. A lot."

Spear released another solid roots reggae set with Dodd, the soulful Rocking Time, in 1974. His next album, 1975’s Marcus Garvey is considered a benchmark of Jamaica’s 1970s roots reggae golden era. Marcus Garvey features Willington and Delroy Hinds’ sublime supporting vocals and the extraordinary musical accompaniment of the Black Disciples band. 

The magnificent title track was originally intended for exclusive play on producer Lawrence "Jack Ruby" Lindo’s Hi Power sound system. However, the song was so popular at Ruby’s dances, he released it as a single and it became an immediate hit. Spear followed that with another stirring reggae anthem, the haunting lament, "Slavery Days"; the Marcus Garvey album soared to the top of the Jamaican charts, which led to a deal for its wider release via Island Records.

Burning Spear would go on to release Man in the Hills, again featuring Willington and Hinds, for Island. Yet his subsequent albums on the label throughout the 1970s were released as a solo artist. Spear released albums for a variety of labels throughout the 1980s before signing to Island again, issuing just two albums with them in the early 1990s.

Spear contends he didn’t make money from any of these recordings, and only started to see returns when he and his wife took control of his catalog circa 2002 and began releasing Spear’s music through their Burning Music Productions.

 "When I started out, a lot of us was getting nothing from what we been doing musically," Spear explained. "People listening to all those beautiful songs thinking that we, the artists and musicians, were well taken care of but we were not."

Spear rails against the shady deals and corruption within the music industry on several of No Destroyer’s tracks. "Independent" is Spear’s story of persevering despite experiencing many unethical business transactions; "No Fool" lashes out at record companies "committing fraud and they think they are so smart." "They Think" calls out individuals who doubted that Spear could succeed as an independent artist. "Talk" takes aim at the "musical sharks" who "eat up the small fish," whom he dismisses with the unyielding refrain: "No more slave trade, no more surrender."  

"Sometimes we as artists can’t explain ourselves just by talking. Through the music we explain how much we hurt, the things that hurt us, what’s been done to us," Spear says. "As artists and players of instruments, we have to talk of these things, so the world will hear fully what we’ve been through in the music industry, things I have gone up against, things that shouldn’t have taken place, but they happened."

Like so many young Jamaican artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Spear perhaps did not have a full understanding of the international record deals he was signing. More than likely, it was never explained that the advances artists receive are intended to cover the cost of recording their albums and that money must be recouped by the label from album sales before an artist will receive any revenue. During that era, recording companies owned the master recordings and required artists to give them their publishing rights, too.

After decades of receiving little financial returns for his albums, Spear and Sonia sought to identify the specific barriers that prevented the money from coming in. Sonia taught herself the nuances of the music business by reading books, attending seminars and talking to seasoned professionals. One of the first things she did was launch a Burning Spear merchandise line, which immediately generated revenue. They also learned how to manufacture their own albums/CDs, and handled their own distribution. 

"We started making connections with other people, give them our works on consignment and right away we see that independence is not so easy. There are a lot of sharks, unreasonable people with dirty business practices who come at you because you are independent, saying, ‘how dare you be independent,’" Spear says.

Spear now owns the copyrights to most of his songs. After some research and a subsequent lawsuit, he bought back some of the copyrights to his earlier music from the estate of a deceased former manager who had never purchased those rights. Spear is especially proud of his 2009 Best Reggae Album GRAMMY Award for Jah Is Real, a significant accomplishment for Burning Music Productions.

No Destroyer also addresses the struggles endured by musicians that came up with Spear, while recognizing their efforts in establishing reggae as a globally embraced music. "Robert Nesta Marley built his foundation the hard way," sings Spear on "Open The Gate." The song also honors Culture, Alton Ellis, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, ska pioneers the Skatalites, Peter Tosh

and Delroy Wilson, among the many Jamaican music legends who "opened the gate for reggae music."

"The artists and musicians who were there before us and those who were there before them, opened the gate and the gate is still open, or else you wouldn’t have a new generation of reggae music," Spear remarks. "It was just the love of reggae music, coming from mento, ska, rocksteady, (that kept us going). We all went through the same thing before we stood strong and saw that we weren’t being taken care of properly."

Spear’s taking control of his music and becoming an independent artist is a present day fulfillment of the self-reliance Marcus Garvey advocated for over a century ago. In his concluding comments, Spear appealed to the authorities to clear Marcus Garvey’s name of all criminal charges. Garvey had been a target of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI for several years and aAs his following increased — on Aug. 1, 1920, an estimated 25,000 delegates gathered at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for the first international convention of Garvey’s Negro Universal Improvement Association — the FBI intensified their efforts to subdue him. 

In 1923, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in the United States after his Black Star Line shipping company — founded with the aim of providing passage for Africans in the diaspora who wanted to return to the continent — sent out advertisements showing a steamship that the company was in the process of purchasing (but didn’t yet own.) Garvey was fined $1,000 and received a five-year prison sentence that was later commuted; he was then deported to Jamaica. Garvey’s descendants, political leaders and others have petitioned President Biden for a posthumous presidential pardon, following an unsuccessful petitioning of President Obama.

"Marcus Garvey’s record should be set free," declares Spear. He also implored Jamaica’s government to institute a public holiday honoring Garvey and include him in the curriculum for all Jamaican students.

"I am a musician; I don’t want to sound like a politician, but the time is right for a Garvey subject in school. We want the upcoming generation to have a full understanding of who Marcus Garvey was and what he stood up for," he says. "Jamaica must come together and make sure that it is done. The time is right to let the people’s voices be heard."

So, too, the time is right for Burning Spear’s voice to be heard, again.

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