meta-scriptLiving Legends: How Roxy Music Went From "Inspired Amateurs" To Art Rock Pioneers | GRAMMY.com
Living Legends: How Roxy Music Went From "Inspired Amateurs" To Art Rock Pioneers
Roxy Music (L-R): Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay (seated), Brian Eno, Rik Kenton, Paul Thompson

Photo: Brian Cooke

interview

Living Legends: How Roxy Music Went From "Inspired Amateurs" To Art Rock Pioneers

Fifty years after their debut, Roxy Music's eight studio albums have been reissued and the band is embarking on a tour. GRAMMY.com spoke with guitarist Phil Manzanera about the band's art rock origins and long tail of influence.

GRAMMYs/Sep 7, 2022 - 05:00 pm

Roxy Music has always been a few steps ahead, and a few degrees to the side, of many of its contemporaries. Helmed by GRAMMY-nominated vocalist/songwriter Bryan Ferry along with Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay and Paul Thompson (with Brian Eno as an early member), the British group is credited with birthing the art rock movement by infusing glam into rock '70s. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roxy Music's eponymous debut album.

Inspired by film and fashion, painting and photography, Roxy Music’s output is an aural and visual amalgam that blurs the lines between musical styles. From the group's formation in 1970 to Avalon, its last studio album in 1982, Roxy Music has informed and influenced genres — from experimental prog and  glam rock, to new wave and electronic pop — and created an enduring impact.

This year, the group’s eight studio albums — Roxy Music, For Your Pleasure, Stranded, Country Life, Siren, Manifesto, Flesh + Blood and Avalon — have been reissued as special anniversary editions with a new half-speed cut, and revised artwork with lyrics., The Best of Roxy Music was released on vinyl for the first time on Sept. 2. The reissues arrive ahead of Roxy Music’s North American arena tour, which kicks off in Toronto on Sept. 7 at Scotiabank Arena. The last time Roxy Music toured was over a decade ago.

Still, the 2019 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have remained active, with and without Roxy Music. This year, Ferry has released a four-track EP of iconic love song covers, Love Letters, and published a book. Mackay, who plays oboe, saxophone and keyboards has released a number of solo albums, written a book on electronic music and studied theology. Drummer Thompson left Roxy Music 1980 and  joined an array of other bands, including Concrete Blonde, before returning to Roxy Music in 2011. Guitarist Phil Manzanera produced for  Pink Floyd, David Gilmour and John Cale, among others, is currently working on an album with Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz.

From his home in the English countryside, Manzanera spoke with GRAMMY.com about his teenage dream of leaving his exotic world-trotting upbringing for a boarding school in England, where he could connect with fellow musicians. "Through music, you can meet people, you can have fun, you can have an adventure," he says. "I didn't want to learn too quickly. I wanted to spread it out over a whole lifetime. Touch wood, still here."

What was the musical landscape like at the time of Roxy Music’s formation?

In the UK, we were coming out of the period where the big guns, Led Zeppelin and all those bands were to the fore. It was the tail end of the hippie jamming period and the start of prog rock. The drugs had done a lot of those bands in; People were on heroin, so it was very gray and introverted. A bit drab really. The time was ripe for a new bunch to emerge.

By complete happenstance, Bowie and us came to the fore in 1972. On the same day that we released the first Roxy Music album, he released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The next week, we were supporting him in a pub in Croydon [South London] called the Greyhound. There was only about 40-50 people there. Every time I used to meet David, we used to have a big banter about it because everyone claims they were there. He was incredibly nice to us. He loved what we were doing. He asked us to be at his support act at the Rainbow Theatre, which is a big deal. He couldn't quite believe that we'd just come out of nowhere, whereas he was [on] his fifth album.

The '70s were such a time of experimentation and new sounds.

We called ourselves inspired amateurs. A bunch of guys who didn't particularly want to be technically brilliant, but wanted to play interesting music. Some of the people in the band have been to art school, so there was this visual side to the whole thing. Music and image are explosive, which we all learn from the Beatles. New fashion designers and photographers were coming up to the age where they were going to be influencers, and they all had a similar aesthetic with the films they liked and visual art and bands that were influential on them. We stuck it all together and presented it in an attractive fashion.

What was the reception for Roxy Music like in the United States at the time?

We went to the U.S. in December '72. We were a bit early. People didn't understand the look of the band. When we got to Fresno, people threw water bombs at us and said, "Get off you faggots." But we were going to continue playing this music regardless of what you throw at us.

It took us a long, long time to have any kind of impact in the States. But what was great and cool was that in San Francisco or L.A. or New York, we attracted the freaks. We were supporting Ten Years After or J. Geils Band, totally not our audience, but all the freaks knew [we] were coming to town and they would be partying at our hotel after the gig. 

Roxy Music was very prolific, sometimes putting out two albums a year — originally all written by Bryan Ferry — but you started writing from the third album, Stranded?

The way the band evolved, the first two albums that Eno was involved with were the first period. By the time it came to the third album, Eno had left, and, in no way can you do the same stuff again. There was a desire to do something different. We needed to expand our musical palette, and so me and Andy [Mackay] started contributing music. 

The way we write songs in Roxy was so different because we had no idea how to write a song. We did all the music first, which is really dangerous, and then Bryan [Ferry] would try and work out some lyrics. Sometimes it was fabulous. Sometimes it was rubbish. Out of the 80 songs of the Roxy catalog, I would say 70 percent hit the mark and perhaps 30 percent we won't talk about. It's a very different way of working, creating a musical texture and musical world behind this singer with a strange voice, but good looking, so we could get away with it. 

You had a whole host of musicians playing on later Roxy Music albums. How was that different for you as far as writing and recording and realizing musical ideas?

There's definitely a difference between the first five years and second five years of Roxy Music. We'd worked with so many other musicians in between, we wanted a bit of that flavor. Bryan, especially, had lived in L.A. for a bit and worked with a lot of American musicians. When we got back together for the second phase of Roxy, which is '77 to '83, by that time, I had my own recording studio and we were using that as our base. Technological innovations affect the way you work in a studio. If you're doing what we're doing, you can use the studio as an instrument. It happened organically because we had the means of production. 

But we were coming to New York, and working with Bob Clearmountain at Atlantic Records and at the Power Station, and having these amazing American bass players and drummers, because Paul [Thompson] had left toward the middle of that period. Bob would mix it and he would just get rid of all the s—. He would say, "I'm going to focus on this, and it's going to rock." Thank God for him, otherwise it would have been airy-fairy, and all over the place. He mixed Avalon in one week. Ten tracks, five days, two tracks a day, three hours a track. boom, boom, boom, boom. Done. He just knows what to do. He just had it.

The first half of Roxy Music was hinged on a strong artist/producer relationship with Chris Thomas in the producer’s seat.

We were so lucky to get Chris Thomas. He came on board from the second album. As you know, he assisted George Martin with the Beatles. The whole tradition of recording from Abbey Road was passed on to us via Chris Thomas.  Everything I've ever learned to do with production — and I've produced loads of people, was a mixture between what Chris Thomas taught me coming from George Martin and my experiences with Eno. Two totally different approaches.

You seem to get along very well with both Ferry and Eno.

After Eno left, when we were doing Stranded, we were up at Air Studios until 6 o'clock. And then I would go to work on Here Come the Warm Jets with Eno from 6 o’clock onwards. We continued for another three years. We had a band, 801, who played live and all sorts of things. But then he just disappeared.

Your guitar riff from the title track of your solo album K-Scope was sampled on the GRAMMY-winning "No Church in the Wild" by Jay-Z and Kanye West.

That's the only GRAMMY that I've ever been associated with, so cheers Jay-Z and Kanye, and 88-Keys, who was the person responsible for playing it to them.

Did your Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nomination, and induction, come as a surprise?

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is not on British musicians’ radar too much. I didn’t realize how big a deal it was for us. We hadn't played together for six or seven years. We thought, we’ve got to have rehearsals. We rehearsed for a week because we want to do a good job and acquit ourselves well — especially in front of all those top musicians who are going to be watching us, particularly Fleetwood Mac and Def Leppard, the Zombies and Radiohead.

On the night, at the Brooklyn Center, when I saw 30,000 people, I realized, this is actually a big deal. I’m about to get scared now. We loved it. We had such a great time. When Bryan said, "Shall we do 'In Every Dream,'" which is about an inflatable doll, I thought, I don’t think that’s going to be shown on telly, and it didn’t make it, but it was really great fun to do. I had a great big guitar solo, which wasn’t shown, but I got to show off in front of Brian May and Fleetwood Mac.

How did this 50th anniversary tour come about?

I had done bits and pieces on Bryan’s new solo stuff. We were having a cup of tea at Christmas, and he just said, "Do you fancy doing some gigs?" I said, "Do you want to do them?" And he said, "Yeah." I said, "Well, in that case, I'm always up for the crack."

We don't have management. If we want to do something, we just ring each other up, and say, "You want to do it?" I also thought, these songs don't get an airing by us, the original people, very often. When we come to the U.S., it will have been 20 years. That's not exactly overdoing it. If there's ever a time to do it, it's at 50. 

What does the ongoing impact of Roxy Music feel like for you?

I don't think about it at all. We never thought we'd do this tour, but we’re doing it. We're really putting in the hours to make it as good as we possibly can. What I want to see when I look out into the audience is people glammed up. I want to see glam out there: heels and feathers — for men and women.

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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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