meta-scriptRevisiting Billy Joel's Historic Bridge To Russia |


Revisiting Billy Joel's Historic Bridge To Russia

Director Jim Brown and musician Mark Rivera discuss Joel's groundbreaking 1987 Russia concerts documented in new film, Billy Joel: A Matter Of Trust — The Bridge To Russia

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

Did rock and roll actually save the world from nuclear annihilation?

That case could be made with Billy Joel: A Matter Of Trust — The Bridge To Russia, a feature-length film that documents Joel's groundbreaking 1987 concerts in Moscow and Leningrad during a time when relations between the United States and the USSR were still dominated by Cold War tensions. The film, which premiered on Showtime Jan. 31 and was released on DVD May 19, mixes exhilarating concert footage with reflective interviews that tell Joel's story of being the first artist to stage a full-scale, high-production rock concert behind the Iron Curtain. Viewers can almost experience the Cold War chill melting away song by song as the extremely tentative Russian audiences learn to rock, and as Joel and his bandmates are repeatedly stunned by the openheartedness of a people they'd grown up fearing.

In an exclusive interview with, Emmy-winning film director Jim Brown, who is working on a forthcoming Cold War music documentary, Free To Rock, in partnership with the GRAMMY Museum; and Mark Rivera, longtime saxist/multi-instrumentalist for Joel's band, discuss the new documentary and how Joel's concerts may have helped thaw the Cold War. Following the interview, watch an outtake from the film featuring Rivera revealing a piece of history from Joel's 1987 concerts.

There was a concert documentary and a TV special made about Billy Joel's Russia concerts in 1987. What was the main impetus for revisiting the concerts with a new film?

Jim Brown: At the time, it would have sounded very pretentious for Billy Joel to say that he wanted to thaw the Cold War with rock and roll. But that was the intent, and in reality, those concerts did a great deal to improve relations between the two countries, politically and musically. It wasn't long after Billy's shows that Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe were sharing a bill with Russian bands at the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, and in '91 one of the biggest rock concerts in history ended up being Metallica's Monsters of Rock shows held outside of Moscow. In the new film, Billy could talk about his experiences with full hindsight.

Mark Rivera: I find the story more compelling now than ever before. Those concerts really had something to do with changing the whole political landscape. I'm still blown away by the fact that we were so afraid of these people for so long, and all they wanted was a taste of freedom.

The film makes it very clear that Joel rose to the occasion at a unique moment in history, when the Russian people were ready to embrace American music, and the Soviet government had loosened up just enough to let the concerts happen.

Brown: Billy went over at a "perfect storm"-like moment. For a long time, rock and roll was banned in Russia; it was thought to be an invention of the CIA. Then, music was allowed but was strictly controlled by the government. There was a slightly more open attitude toward American music in the "glasnost" era and the Soviets really allowed Billy to do whatever he wanted. Billy titled the film A Matter Of Trust, and that's absolutely right — he and the Russians proceeded down this path together. It only worked with both sides trusting each other.

Rivera: You can see the cultural transformation take place in the course of our six concerts. At the beginning, people are just sitting in their seats, not moving and not making a sound. Nobody knows what to do at a rock show. By the end, people are surging forward and pounding on the stage. At one show there was a young Russian soldier up front who took off his hat and handed it up to me onstage. It's still one of my most treasured possessions.

You know, when I saw the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan" as a kid, it felt like everything I knew had been turned upside down, musically and culturally. With Billy's band, we got to see that moment happen all over again with the Russian kids at our shows.

The Soviet Union is gone, but Billy Joel's still rocking. What do you think is the real legacy of the 1987 concerts?

Brown: I think you can see in the film that sometimes music gets to the truth faster than anything else. Billy's trip really raised the question that maybe much of the Cold War was a lie. He went over there and found that the "enemy" actually loved Americans. They loved seeing him and his family. They loved everything about the music. And in terms of technological sophistication, forget about them dominating us; they didn't even have enough toilet paper.

Rivera: They couldn't wipe let alone wipe us out. It was crazy. I remember there were two types of water in Russia then: green and brown. The green had the live parasites; the brown had the dead ones. We lived on warm Coca-Cola and vodka. But these people who had nothing were so generous to us and showed us nothing but love.

The giving of the music was actually the gift that we got back, because the Russian audiences' appreciation of our shows was one of the best feelings I've ever had as a musician. Billy actually managed to make the world smaller by bringing people together with music. That's an incredible legacy.

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(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)

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


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."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

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 every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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Billy Joel's Biggest Songs: 15 Tracks That Best Showcase The Piano Man's Storytelling And Pop Hooks
Billy Joel performs in Australia in December 2022.

Photo: Chris Putnam/Future Publishing via Getty Images


Billy Joel's Biggest Songs: 15 Tracks That Best Showcase The Piano Man's Storytelling And Pop Hooks

30 years on from Billy Joel's last mainstream pop album, 'River of Dreams,' digs into the best and biggest tunes from the ultimate Piano Man.

GRAMMYs/Aug 14, 2023 - 01:48 pm

From 1973 to 1997, Billy Joel racked  up nearly three dozen self-penned Billboard hits, tackling everything from adult contemporary pop and classic rock to smooth jazz and Broadway-ready showtunes. And although he's largely avoided the studio since, the legendary singer/songwriter has still very much been a fixture of the music scene thanks to his tireless work on the road. 

This past March, for example, he launched a series of co-headlining dates across North America with another '70s icon, Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks. Then there's the residency at Madison Square Garden he's staged every month (bar the pandemic-hit period, of course) since 2014, while his In Concert tour has been ongoing for a similarly impressive amount of time, too.

However, with the former now officially coming to an end ("My team tells me that we could continue to sell tickets, but 10 years, 150 shows — all right already," he remarked in a June 2023 press release) and a March 2024 show at Arlington's AT&T Stadium looking like the final date of the latter, the proud New Yorker now appears to be gearing up to give those famous piano-playing fingers a well-earned rest.

As he plays his final run of shows (at least for now), Joel also celebrates the 30th anniversary of his final mainstream album, 1993's River of Dreams. (His thirteenth and final album, 2001's Fantasies and Delusions, was a surprising detour into classical music, perhaps inspired by his musical hero Paul McCartney's orchestral works.)

In honor of his latest milestones, delves into the biggest and most impactful tracks from one of pop's all-time great storytellers.

"She's Got A Way," Cold Spring Harbor (1971)

With its heartfelt melodies, textured piano arrangement and unabashedly romantic lyrics, the opening track from Joel's 1971 debut Cold Spring Harbor effectively set the template for the classic Billy Joel ballad. The man himself went on to dismiss "She's Got A Way" (and the rest of the LP) for a mastering error which made him resemble a chipmunk. But he eventually began to appreciate its simple charms: a performance of the track for seminal 1981 live album Songs in the Attic even resulted in a belated but deserved entry on the Billboard Hot 100.

Joel had added strings to the track during his iconic 1977 show at Carnegie Hall, but it's the stripped-back original — a dedication to his manager, and first of four wives, Elizabeth Weber — that pulls at the heartstrings the hardest.

"Captain Jack," Piano Man (1973) 

"The song is sort of brutal, but sometimes it is good to be brutal and offend people," Joel once remarked about the song that ultimately launched his major label career. "It keeps them on their toes."

Listeners of Philadelphia station WMMR certainly seemed to appreciate such provocation. Following its debut at a competition winners' show, DJs were flooded with requests for its caustic tale of a suburban teen who develops a heroin addiction purely out of boredom.

Inspired by a real-life drug deal witnessed from Joel's Long Island apartment, "Captain Jack" subsequently attracted the attention of Columbia Records boss Clive Davis, too. The seven-minute epic — which boasts one of Joel's most rousing choruses and stinging lines ("Well, you're 21 and your mother still makes your bed") — later showed up on 1973's Piano Man, and in 2000 offended Rudy Giuliani after being accidentally played to celebrate rival Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign announcement.

"Piano Man," Piano Man (1973)

Although far from his biggest commercial hit — it peaked at a modest No.25 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1974 — the title track from Joel's second album has undoubtedly become his defining.

Showcasing his remarkably concise ability to tell a story, "Piano Man" paints a vivid picture of the Los Angeles lounge he performed at while Columbia's lawyers were negotiating his freedom from first label Family Productions. Joel insists its parade of unfulfilled dreamers — Paul the real estate novelist, John the bartender/aspiring movie star — really were part of The Executive Room's Saturday night crowd; the waitress practising politics is definitely another reference to his then-other half Elizabeth.

But whether a genuine portrait of barroom demographics or work of pure fiction, this meeting point between folksy troubadour Harry Chapin and the theme to Cheers is always worthy of raising a glass to.

"New York State of Mind," Turnstiles (1976)

Following a three-year spell in the bright lights of Los Angeles, Joel gave the impression he needed to make amends with his beloved hometown. Not only did the six-time GRAMMY winner return to Long Island (a place he still owns a property at to this day, but he also dedicated much of his fourth album, Turnstiles, to the joys of New York.

Other than the ability to buy its newspapers fresh off the press, this slice of sophisticated jazz-pop doesn't pinpoint exactly why he feels such an affinity to the place. But genuinely conceived while "taking a Greyhound on the Hudson River Line," "A New York State Of Mind" still evokes a palpable sense of pride, placing it alongside Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind" and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" in the holy trinity of Big Apple classics.

"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," The Stranger (1977)

Clocking in at nearly 8 minutes, Joel's longest studio cut is also his most audacious: a mini operetta that segues from traditional piano ballad, to jaunty Dixieland jazz, to good old-fashioned rock and roll and back again.

Inspired by the second half of The Beatles' Abbey Road, the lyrical themes of "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" are similarly multi-dimensional. Joel starts out reminiscing with an old school friend at said Italian restaurant (reportedly Fontana di Trevi, a regular haunt during his Carnegie Hall residency), but the small talk and nostalgia later gives way to the poignant story of Brenda and Eddie, two high school sweethearts whose seemingly idyllic romance came unstuck by the pressures of adult life ("They started to fight when the money got tight/ And they just didn't count on the tears").

Although never released as a single, the standout from fifth LP The Stranger has become a firm favorite among both fans and Joel himself — only "Piano Man" has been played more frequently live on stage

"Just the Way You Are," The Stranger (1977)

Joel very nearly dropped "Just the Way You Are" from The Stranger tracklist, believing it may be just one sentimental spousal tribute too far. But thanks to some wise interference from studio neighbors Phoebe Snow and Linda Ronstadt, the wedding favorite made the cut and the rest is history.

Indeed, the Phil Ramone-produced track became Joel's first top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic, picked up Record and Song Of The Year at the 1979 GRAMMYs, and propelled its parent album to worldwide sales of more than 10 million. Joel once again gave the smooth soft rock standard the heave-ho in the wake of his 1982 divorce to Weber — but after returning to his setlists at the turn of the century, it's remained a much-loved ever-present.

"She's Always a Woman," The Stranger (1977)

"She's Always a Woman" initially sounds like your typical Joel love song, but lines such as "She is frequently kind and she's suddenly cruel" prove it's no rose-tinted deification. You can certainly hear its echoes in the earlier work of Ed Sheeran, a man who, at times, seemed determined to point out his lover's flaws in order to chivalrously claim he can look beyond them.

Thankfully, the fourth Top 40 single from sales juggernaut The Stranger isn't as graceless. Joel isn't referencing any physical attributes, but simply the complex mix of personality traits most of us possess. It's the most emotionally raw of the many tributes he penned for Weber, and perhaps the most obvious foreshadowing of the split that was to come.

"My Life," 52nd Street (1978) 

"I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life/Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone." "My Life" may have been adopted as the theme tune to pre-fame Tom Hanks sitcom Bosom Buddies, but amid its jaunty piano melodies and peppy harmonies (courtesy of Chicago's Donnie Dacus and Peter Cetera), Joel instead appears to be taking his cues from All in the Family's grumpy old man Archie Bunker. Audiences still embraced this more irascible side of the singer/songwriter's personality, however, with the lead single from sixth LP 52nd Street equaling his then-highest Hot 100 peak of No. 3.

"It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," Glass Houses (1980)

Fans once again lapped up Joel in defensive mode on "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me," the first of his three U.S. No. 1s. Taken from his seventh studio effort, Glass Houses, the rockabilly throwback was a direct response to those detractors who dismissed his adult contemporary sound as old hat.

Released in the same year Michael Jackson's "Rock With You," Lipps Inc.'s "Funkytown" and Blondie's "Call Me"also hit the top spot, the song's industry satire argued that the newly popular hot funk, cool punk, new wave and latest dance crazes were simply retreading what had gone before. You could argue it was a needless display of petulance, but you also can't deny it's one of his biggest earworms.

"Goodnight Saigon," The Nylon Curtain (1982)

Bookended by the Apocalypse Now-esque sound of chirping crickets and whirring helicopters, "Goodnight Saigon" finds Joel stepping into the military boots of a 19-year-old called up to fight in the Vietnam War. The Piano Man had been a conscientious objector himself, but on this occasion decided against politicizing the conflict ("And who was wrong? And who was right? It didn't matter in the thick of the fight").

Instead, drawing upon the tales of friends who did see battle, he offers an intimate portrait of the soldier experience, from the distractions of Playboy magazine and Bob Hope to the hardships of losing a comrade. The standout from his most serious-minded LP The Nylon Curtain, this is Joel at his most affecting.

"Tell Her About It," An Innocent Man (1983)

Joel loosened things up a little for his ninth LP, An Innocent Man, paying homage to the soul and doo-wop sounds he grew up with on this toe-tapping throwback. Buoyed by an equally playful promo in which the pianist lives out his The Ed Sullivan Show fantasy — pulling out some unexpected dance moves in the process — "Tell Her About It" became his second U.S. No. 1 in the summer of 1983.

Joel went on to disown his slightly wordy wingman anthem ("It's not automatically a certain guarantee/ To insure yourself/ You've got to provide communication constantly"), acknowledging it sounded more like bubblegum pop crooner Tony Orlando than the Motown tribute he intended. In fact, he hasn't played it live for 36 years!

"Uptown Girl," An Innocent Man (1983)

Joel's affectionate nod to the falsetto pop of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons has endured a little better: proving its cross-generational appeal, he invited Olivia Rodrigo to perform the track with him at Madison Square Garden in August 2022.  (The pop superstar referenced "Uptown Girl" in her own monster hit "déjà vu.")

As with much of Joel's oeuvre, the tale of a working-class guy trying his luck with a woman way out of his league has autobiographical roots. It was inspired by the time Joel found himself in the company of Whitney Houston, Christie Brinkley and Elle Macpherson. And while he was dating the latter at the time, it was her fellow supermodel that ended up gracing the memorable "Uptown Girl" promo, and indeed, becoming the second Mrs. Joel.

"A Matter of Trust," The Bridge (1986)

Often his own biggest critic, Joel has been largely dismissive of tenth LP The Bridge, claiming it was hampered by both impatient record execs and the distraction of becoming a first-time father. You can briefly see baby daughter Alexa and then-wife Brinkley in the video for one of its saving graces.

Second single "A Matter of Trust" is a rare but convincing foray into Bruce Springsteen-esque arena rock in which the Piano Man becomes the Electric Guitar Man. It was also a highlight of Konsert, the following year's live album recorded during his historic tour of the Soviet Union.

"We Didn't Start the Fire," Storm Front (1989)

The hostile reaction to Fall Out Boy's recent update proves how hard it can be to namecheck 40 years of newsworthy events in just 4 minutes of anthemic pop-rock. From post-war president Harry Truman to the cola wars of the 1980s, the original "We Didn't Start the Fire" manages to throw in 118 references — and in mostly chronological order, too, without barely pausing for breath.

Inspired by a "my generation had it worse than you" conversation with a friend of Sean Lennon, Joel's rapid-fire alternative history lesson became his third and final No. 1, and picked up Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance nominations at the 1990 GRAMMYs. The lead single from 11th LP Storm Front didn't gain the seal of approval from its creator, however, with Joel comparing it to the sound of a dentist's drill.

"The River of Dreams," River of Dreams (1993)

Joel earned two more Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year nominations for River of Dreams' title track at the 1994 GRAMMYs. But despite an additional nod for Album of the Year, he still went home empty handed. (He also made headlines for pausing his live performance of the song in protest of producers' curtailing Frank Sinatra's Lifetime Achievement Award speech.)

In contrast to all the awards drama and soul-searching lyrics, "The River of Dreams" is one of Joel's most jovial hits, an uplifting blend of doo-wop and gospel vocals arranged by regular band member Crystal Taliefero. The last time the once-prolific hitmaker would grace the U.S. Top 20, it's a fine commercial swansong.

ReImagined At Home: Sammy Rae Scats Through A Bouncy Rendition Of Billy Joel's "The River Of Dreams"

8 Artists Who Were Inspired By Their Teachers: Rihanna, Adele, Jay-Z & More
John Legend sings for students at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 2012.

Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images


8 Artists Who Were Inspired By Their Teachers: Rihanna, Adele, Jay-Z & More

In honor of Music In Our Schools Month this March, take a look at how teachers made a heartwarming impact on superstars like Katy Perry and John Legend.

GRAMMYs/Mar 16, 2023 - 03:55 pm

Before Rihanna, Billy Joel and Jay-Z became some of the biggest names in music, they were students just like the rest of us. Without some particularly special teachers, they might not be the superstars they are today, and they all remember who first encouraged them.

Within the past few years, Rihanna made a special trip to a cricket match in England to reunite with her old P.E. teacher from Barbados, who she calls her "MVP"; Joel traveled back to his New York hometown to honor the teacher who said he should be a professional musician; and Jay-Z told David Letterman that his sixth grade English teacher made him fall in love with words. 

In honor of Music In Our Schools Month — which raises awareness for supporting and cultivating worthwhile music programs in K-12 — highlights eight artists who have praised their teachers for making a lifelong impact.

Billy Joel

After watching Joel tackle Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, his high school music appreciation teacher Chuck Arnold suggested that he consider music as a career.

"He said to me, you should be a professional musician," Joel recalled of his Hicksville High School mentor during a 1996 event at C.W. Post College. "Now, for a teacher to say that, it's like condemning someone to a life of poverty, drug taking, alcoholism and failure.

"A teacher is telling me this," he added seriously. "It had a huge influence on me."

In 2022, Joel was on hand to congratulate Arnold during the dedication of the Charles "Chuck" Arnold Theatre at the school. "This is for the coolest teacher there ever was," he praised.


In 2019, CBS Sunday arranged a surprise visit with the singer and Manny Gonzales, the former band director at her alma mater, Elsik High School in Houston. She told the network that Gonzales helped her get a scholarship to study classical flute at University of Houston.

"You told my ass!" Lizzo exclaimed as she squeezed him. "You were like, 'Get it together, girl, 'cause you are special. Apply yourself!' Those moments meant so much to me."

Lil Jon

The Atlanta DJ/producer and king of crunk has done more than take parties to the next level — he has invested in the educational future of children in Africa by building two schools in Ghana with the non-profit organization Pencils of Promise. He credits a mentor at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta for sparking his brain when he was a teenager.

"It was my music teacher [who inspired me to dream bigger]," he said in a 2019 interview with Yahoo! "I wanted to play drums, and if I didn't play drums, I wouldn't make music, and drums are the foundation for what I do."


Roddy Estwick was Rihanna's P.E. teacher in Barbados and is now the assistant coach of the West Indies cricket team. The two had an emotional reunion at the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England.

"He made a lasting impact on my life and he really offered great advice to me and many others when we were at school at Combermere," she told Barbados Today amid their reunion. "I just wanted to let everyone know what he meant to me in my development and what he did for us back at school in Barbados." Essence reported that Rihanna described him as, "My mentor, my champ, my MVP" on her Instagram stories.

John Legend

The Ohio native credits his English teacher Mrs. Bodey at North High School in Springfield for setting him on the path that culminated in his music career.

"Until her class, I hadn't believed in my ability as a writer," Legend shared in a 2017 op-ed for Huffington Post. "She recognized my potential and showed me that I could write with creativity, with clarity, with passion."

He continued, "Mrs. Bodey, along with a few other teachers, helped me gain confidence in my skills and pushed me to challenge myself. They pushed me to graduate second in my class. They pushed me to deliver the speech at our graduation. They pushed me to earn a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, to hone my writing as an English Major and, ultimately, toward a successful career as a songwriter."


The singer was reunited with the most pivotal teacher in her life during her "An Audience with Adele" concert special in 2021. While the singer took questions from the crowd, actress Emma Thompson asked Adele if she had a supporter or protector in the past.

"I had a teacher at [south London high school] Chestnut Grove, who taught me English. That was Miss McDonald," Adele said. "She got me really into English literature. Like, I've always been obsessed with English and obviously now I write lyrics… She really made us care, and we knew that she cared about us."

Miss McDonald then surprised Adele on stage, and the singer was brought to tears — a touching highlight of the special. She even told her former teacher that she still has the books from her class!

Katy Perry

While Perry has admitted that she wishes she had a better overall education, her former music school teacher gave her confidence to pursue singing seriously.

"I'm kind of bummed at this stage that I didn't have a great education because I could really use that these days," she said in a 2014 interview with Yahoo! "There was a teacher named Agatha Danoff who was my vocal teacher and music teacher at the Music Academy of the West. It was very fancy and I didn't come from any money… and she always used to give me a break on my lessons. I owe her a lot of credit and I appreciate that she looked out for me when I didn't have enough money to pay."


Picture a young Shawn Carter — now better known as Jay-Z —  with his head stuck in a dictionary.

"I had a sixth grade teacher, her name was Ms. Lowden and I just loved the class so much," Jay-Z said during his appearance on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman in 2018. 

He later realized how much Renee Rosenblum-Lowden, who taught him at Intermediate School 318 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, had an influence on his passion for language. "Like, reading the dictionary and just my love of words," he explained. "I just connected with her."

"I knew he was extremely bright, but he was quiet," Rosenblum-Lowden told Brut in 2019, sharing that he scored at the 12th-grade level on a sixth-grade reading test.

"He's been very kind," she added. "Every famous person has a teacher who probably influenced them, and I wish they would all shout out the way Jay-Z did."

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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 


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'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'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 (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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