La Santa Cecilia. From left, Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez, Miguel “Oso” Ramirez, Alex Bendaña, Jose “Pepe” Carlos.
Humberto Howard/Courtesy of the artist
Grammy Award-winning group La Santa Cecilia takes its name from the Catholic saint of musicians. It’s a fitting moniker; as if by divine intervention, the members of the band — Marisol Hernandez, Jose “Pepe” Carlos, Miguel “Oso” Ramirez, and Alex Bendaña — found each other in the sprawl of Los Angeles.
“I met Pepe Carlos on Olvera Street,” lead singer Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez recalls. “I was busking with the older musicians — my teachers who I learned all that beautiful, traditional Latin-American music from — and Pepe was busking with his little brother on the other side of the street.”
They formed a connection, and years later Hernandez roped in her friend, Oso, along with Alex Bendaña, to create La Santa Cecilia, a band “where we could make our own music, write about our own experiences [and] experiment with our influences,” she says. Those influences were vast. They heard Mexican accordions and horns in mariachi bands and fused those sounds with bossa nova, jazz and pop.
They came together to act on their individual, forward-thinking visions.
Some of that fusion is showcased on the centerpiece of the band’s self-titled album, out on Oct. 18. The song, “I’ve Been Thinking,” is about a shared, tragic experience.
“Oso, Alex, and I lost our fathers at different times,” Hernandez says. “It was a very big, big, big blow to the band and to us personally. We were all very close to our fathers, and I don’t know if I could go through this without my bandmates. I feel like this united us even more and we needed to write something and let out these feelings.”
La Santa Cecilia’s members have also all been affected to some degree by the recent political climate and the debate surrounding immigration. “Our band member, Pepe Carlos, was undocumented for 27 years of his life. So much of our family history and lineage has to do with immigration and coming to this country and our experiences as bicultural people,” Ramirez says. “We chose to write a song called ‘Ice El Hielo’ in 2013. It was a song that changed our lives because we chose to write about our story from our perspective, what we live, what we feel. We chose to humanize the experience of the immigrant and what happens through deportations and separation of families. For us, it’s really important to always reflect that and use the platform that we have to speak out on issues.”
Still, for Hernandez, the band’s political messaging brims with hope.
“In La Santa Cecilia, we will always continue to raise, with pride, our flag of love, of where we come from: of being Mexican American, of being from Latin America and being born here in the United States,” Hernandez says. “And whether people like it or not, we are as American as apple pie and tacos.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — George Frayne has resided in the Saratoga area across four decades. Until Sunday morning, Sept 26, 2021, that is, as he passed away at his home here after a gallant fight versus the Big C.
For the few Nippertowners recognizing that name, it is most likely because of his slashy-flashy, colorful paintings of pop-inspired imagery and personalities that hang in museums, galleries, private homes, and public spaces. It’s great, smile-inducing stuff, all part of a lifelong love affair with the brush that included achieving an MFA from the U. of Michigan.
But it was at that institution of higher learning where George picked up an intriguing nickname; one that labeled his presence in another form of artistic expression and from which he gained wide national acclaim and recognition:
That name was Commander Cody.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen sprang from the Ann Arbor college bar & frat house scene in the late ’60s as a good time, rollicking funhouse of a throwback rock & roll band that quickly gained coast to coast radio play via a humorous yet long forgotten cover song called Hot Rod Lincoln; the tale of that era’s young male fascination with big motors and fast speed. It was a big hit!
As is often the case, however, a chart-busting song with the type of quirkiness heard on this single will hang like an albatross on the offending performers’ neck and very often stamp them as both a novelty act and a one-hit-wonder. Such was the case here; at least in the hearts and minds of the American Top 40 crowd.
But as the AM pop radio world shifted into the heavier and more serious FM/ Rock Era of the early ’70s, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen played a different role in that emerging and glorious soundscape. As the group’s leader and pianist, George would lead them onto a different path.
With the British Invasion making room for more Americanized formats, country roots-rock and cosmic cowboy music emerged as the particular styles dominating the playlists of that timeframe for the more in-the-know members of the nation’s youth. Whether they be college kids, military grunts, backyard rednecks or wandering hippies, the consensus among them all made for a new and mostly unified music scene. Acts like the Dead, Allmans, Eagles, CSN, Skynyrd, Hot Tuna, and Marshall Tucker became major-major attractions, both over the air and (more importantly) in the live music halls, sheds, arenas, and stadiums throughout the land. It was big, wide, deep and spectacular ; dominating the radar screen of the Youth Culture of that faded day.
Floating just under the cloud of those giants were support players that, while not eventually gaining similar superstar status, were still recognizable enough to make a good living and to ride the tiger’s tail of the high life and big time fun. There were acts like the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Flying Burrito Brothers, Charlie Daniels … and the Lost Planet Airmen. All were important cogs in that machine; recognizable contributors to the scene.
The Commander and his crew made for a most interesting member of that field, given their very off-center and outside the curve musical styling and vibe. For here was a wacky ensemble of weed smoking degenerate longhairs getting off a Kesey-style bus and playing old time Texas swing and roadhouse boogie woogie. It shouldn’t have jibed. But it did, likely because it WAS something different while still being delivered by a bunch of regular guys (and the occasional Airgirl like Nicolette Larson) that one could easily hang out and party with. Plus, they made it all incredibly fun.
That ‘fun’ part can not be over-emphasized. From the opening notes, this was a band that let the audience know a celebration was starting and there would be no naysayers along the route. The ensemble aspect of a lot of different things happening up on stage by a lot of different people added to the impact. CC&HLPA were once described as “the perfect opening act” for any headliner of any genre.
Along the way, they released a worthy catalog, including the famed Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas(at the Armadillo World HQ), which is consistently ranked as one of the top in-concert albums of all time and which spawned deep-cut original singles. Shows were performed around the globe, often with those previously mentioned superstars. They toured with the Dead during the over the top Wall of Sound days. Cody got into some sort of hotel trouble with Hunter Thompson (something about fireworks and a stun gun). Heck, they even warmed up for Led Zeppelin in the UK before 100K people. As always, it somehow worked out just fine. Imagine what this life was like?
But then began a fade to gray. Of course, it did. The Airmen were too numerous, too talented, too adventurous, too costly and too weird to hold together. Plus, arena rock, disco and punk/new wave were moving in and waving warning flags. The Scene was over. Those dope-smoking college kids with all the time in the world had now turned off the radio, junked the old VW and taken jobs downtown or in the Valley.
But the Commander himself soldiered on under his own name, playing smaller and smaller venues as the years rolled on while the visual artist within him became the more passionate pursuit. It was during this transition that he made the move to the 518, while still climbing stages in a scaled-down format with a revolving cast of comrades and a more portable electric piano. But it didn’t feel quite right to anyone that knew of him from “back in the day.”
For the inherent unfairness of the Music Game is that it doesn’t usually reward those that actually deserve it. That very case can be made with George and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. History has forgotten them, to a great degree.
That may be because History has also somehow forgotten those days of many dozens of original bands playing five shows a week, jumping from college to college and roadhouse to roadhouse and of young people having as their primary recreational outlet getting to those venues after hearing the recordings communally with their friends. Maybe it’s because it sounds just too unbelievably good to be true vs the troubling landscape of the current music world’s distressing reality? But leave all that analyses to the sociologists’ grad school theses – if THEY even care.
Sure, that handful of big timers became permanently enshrined in the annals of fame and went to the bank forever and ever and ever and a day. Their nostalgia tours still roll into Vegas and the big rooms, whether any of their members are still a part of the charade or not. Likewise, the royalty checks overfill their mailboxes and the plaques on the wall sometimes require additions to hillside mansions.
But the second-tier players like George and the gang deserve a better legacy than they have (or haven’t) received. Heck, the only shrine dedicated to them seems to be a small, booth-side shout-out in Clancys Tavern here in the Spa City, courtesy of its owner and longtime Cody pal Tommy C.
But at least Mr. Frayne had that other equally loved artistic passion of painting to keep him rolling and to keep making people happy. Let’s, therefore, chalk that part up as a blessing and a good thing. We just hope he looked at it that way and it kept him happy, as well.
Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate Lord, you hate to make him wait You just gotta have another cigarette
George Frayne Dead At 77: Commander Cody’s Tragic Cause of Death Revealed
By Mike Stevenson Sep 27, 2021 07:20 AM EDT
(Photo : Ed Perlstein / Contributor) APRIL 2: Commander Cody, aka George Frayne, performs with the Lost Planet Airmen during a reunion concert on April 2, 1978 at Provo Park in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Ed Perlstein/Redferns/Getty Images)
George Frayne, popularly known as Commander Cody, of the popular country-rock band “Commander Cody And The Los Planet Airmen,” has passed away at the age of 77.
His wife, Sue Casanova, confirmed the news on Facebook using his account. She mentioned that she lay her head on her husband’s shoulder as the rock singer’s “soul took to flight.”
“I am heartbroken and weary and I know your hearts break too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared.” Casanova added. (read the full post below)
Frayne spent his early days in Boise, Idaho. In 1967, he formed his band “Commander Cody And The Los Planet Airmen,” in Michigan.
He got his stage name “Commander Cody” from the 1951 sci-fi film “Lost Planet Airmen,”; he was inspired by the character of Commando Kody, King of Rocket Men.
His band has a distinct style of music as they mix country sounds with boogie-woogie, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, western swing, and jazz.
According to Louder Sound, their band was one of the first musical acts to have a counter-cultural twist to the sound of Nashville.
From the countryside, the band ultimately moved to Berkley, California, where they got a recording contract with Paramount Records.
They were popularly known for their tracks such as “Hot Rod Lincoln,” which entered the Billboard top ten at the time, “Mama Hated Diesels,” “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!,” “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” and many more.
The band was disbanded in 1976, but Frayne was able to have a solo career. He went on to retain his stage name, Frayne began touring across the United States and released his first solo album titled “Midnight Man” the following year.
Aside from being a singer, Frayne was also an artist as he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in design from the University of Michigan. He also has a master’s degree in sculpture and painting.
Frayne’s last solo album was “Dopers, Drunks, and Everyday Losers,” which was released in 2009. His final collaboration album was titled “Live from Electric City.”
There were few that could tap into the cosmic side of country music better, and nobody that could sail as deep into the ozone as Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen. And now, the band’s illustrious pilot, the Captain, keyboard player and singer Commander Cody himself, Mr. George Frayne, has flown his final mission.
On Sunday morning, September 26th, it was revealed that George Frayne had passed away in Saratoga Springs, New York due to Cancer.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen revolutionized the space where country and rock intersected by bringing a wild, loose, and uninhibited attitude to the music. They were the cool everyone wanted to be, and every music scene wanted to claim them as their own. But the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan is where it all officially started, though the band would eventually move to Berkeley in California, and be closely associated with the hippies/cowboys scene in Austin at the Armadillo World Headquarters as well.
They only had one true hit—that being a remake of the 1955 song “Hot Rod Lincoln” that went Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 1972. But “Seeds and Stems” is the song many bands an artists stole the idea from, while their live albums Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas (1974) recorded at The Armadillo, We’ve Got a Live One Here!(1976), and the essential country trucker record Hot Licks, Cold Steel, and Truckers Favorites (1972) all make for badass record store finds that have withstood the test of time, not to mention the band’s original studio albums such as Lost in the Ozone(1971), Country Casanova (1973), and Tales from the Ozone (1975).
Officially formed in 1967 after George Frayne had earned a bachelor’s degree in art from the University of Michigan, once Frayne finished his master’s in sculpture and painting in 1968, he started devoting himself to the band full-time, and they hit the road, bolstered by the world-class Telecaster playing of Bill Kirchen, and saxophone/fiddle player Andy Stein. Borrowing from country, rock, Western swing, rockabilly, and rhythm and blues, their live shows were a thing of wonder, and the wild nature of their performances inspired bands like Texas mainstays Asleep at the Wheel, who Commander Cody even convinced to relocate to California for a stint.
The original Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen burned hot, but didn’t burn too long. Signing to Paramount Records and later Warner Bros., the businessmen wanted to make them into a version of The Eagles or something similar. But they couldn’t be tamed, and were even more tough to market beyond the band’s legion of devoted fans. They did get to tour with The Grateful Dead and once opened for Led Zepplin as well before the original band officially broke up in 1976.
George Frayne kept going with the Commander Cody name for many years though, and in multiple iterations, including the Commander Cody Band, Commander Cody and His Modern Day Airmen, and Commander Cody and His Western Airmen, but mostly just Commander Cody, which he went by all the way until his death. Bill Kirchen and Andy Stein went on to continue in music quite successfully, with Bill becoming one of the most revered Telecaster players in history, and Andy Stein playing in the house band of A Prairie Home Companion.
George Frayne also never lost his passion for visual art. Originally born in Boise, Idaho on July 19, 1944, he received proper training in all sorts of mediums during his time in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. Eventually Frayne permanently relocated to Saratoga Springs, New York where he spent the better part of four decades. He worked in acrylics and depicted a variety of subjects from pop art to portraits of classic cars. Frayne also published a book Art Music and Life through Qualibre Publications in 2009.
An important character in both the country and rock realm, George Frayne, a.k.a. Commander Cody will be sorely missed, while the seeds he planted with the other Lost Planet Airmen can still be seen and heard throughout country and rock today.
Commander Cody, aka George Frayne, Roots-Rock Band Leader and ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’ Singer, Dies at 77
George Frayne IV, who led the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, a group that combined elements of the rock counterculture with a love for roots music in the early 1970s, died Sunday at age 77. Frayne had been receiving treatment for cancer for several years.
“Early this morning, as I lay my head upon his shoulder, George’s soul took to flight,” his wife, Sue, said in a post on his Facebook page. “I am heartbroken and weary, and I know your hearts break, too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared.”
Frayne’s seminal group was popularly best known for a remake of the 1955 rockabilly-flavored song “Hot Rod Lincoln” that made the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, peaking at No. 9, with some crossover impact on the country and easy listening charts.
Although the group’s style was often described in its early days as country-rock, the Bay Area-based band had a harder-driving style — and, as its sci-fi-serial-based name would indicate, more of a sense of humor — than other country-influenced artists coming along at the time down in Los Angeles, like the Eagles or Poco. The sounds of rockabilly, Western swing, jump blues, jazz and boogie-woogie piano figured into the band’s free-wheeling style as readily as country, finding enthusiastic fans among followers of rock groups like the Grateful Dead, for whom Commander Cody sometimes opened, as well as devotees of more traditional music forms.
Although it took until 1971 for their major-label debut, “Lost in the Ozone,” to be released, the group actually formed in 1967 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, going against the tide of the psychedelia that was peaking along with the flower-power movement in favor of sounds that dipped deep into the supposedly squarer music of decades past, like Western swing pioneer Bob Wills.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen released seven albums on the Paramount and Warner Bros. labels from 1971-76. After the original group’s breakup in 1976, Frayne continued to record and tour under the name Commander Cody until shortly before the pandemic kicked in.
He told the website Classicbands.com about the origins of the group’s name, saying they got it from “the same place that George Lucas got it: from Republic Pictures. In 1948, 1949, Flash Gordon like operations would run in theaters in between films. Then later, this character Commander Cody made three movies, one of which was ‘Lost Planet Airmen.’ I was watching the Lost Planet Airmen movie and I saw the Commander Cody character and I thought it would be a great name for a band. I had no idea anyone was going to have to be Commander Cody. I mean, there’s no Lynyrd Skynyrd. There’s no Steely Dan. There’s no Marshall Tucker. Why did there have to be a Commander Cody? That’s a long story in itself.
But, of course, there was little sense sci-fi in the music itself… although there was a lot of weed. “In about 1966 I found a Bob Wills album and marijuana,” Frayne said in an interview with No Depression in 2018. “I’m pretty sure those guys were stoned most of the time. I started listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’ album that had ‘Crazy Arms’ and Buck Owens’ greatest hits. We did [Owens’] ‘Tiger by the Tail’ regularly. What country music afforded for us was there was no rehearsal; we listened to the record, we drank a bunch of whiskey and coke, and played. Country music is easy to do if someone knows the lyrics and the song, you can follow along relatively easily.”
But, comments like that notwithstanding, Frayne was a serious musician, whose foremost influence as a pianist was Fats Domino. “The Commander I knew was a music-history buff, fine-arts scholar and one of the sharpest minds I’ve ever encountered,” David Malachowski, a guitarist who joined Commander Cody’s band in the late ’90s, told the Times Union, a newspaper in Frayne’s final hometown, Saratoga Springs. Malachowski pointed out the complicated nature of a piano playing style that required different rhythms and even speeds for left-hand and right-hand parts. “I asked him once how he did it, and he said he just played the left-hand figures nonstop all day for about a year, until it became second nature,” the guitarist said.
Born in Boise, Idaho in 1944, Frayne was raised in the Long Island area before attending the University of Michigan, where he received a master of fine arts degree in painting and sculpture the same year the Lost Planet Airmen assembled.
Frayne’s first Ann Arbor band was the Fantastic Surfing Beavers, with a different frontman. After the Commander Cody band formed, according to a 1970 profile by Ed Ward in Rolling Stone, “Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen have devoted themselves body and soul to country music and old-time rock and roll. But that devotion is not an easy thing to stick to in the Midwest where, chances are, you associate that type of music with the greasers at the drive-in who love to vamp on longhairs and inevitably wind up becoming cops. And it was even harder in 1967 when everyone was just getting into acid and revolution and high-powered MC5 music and all the other things that have put Ann Arbor and Detroit on the map.”
Frayne told Rolling Stone in that profile: “We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,. We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side. It was when the psychedelic ballrooms were starting to be big. We played the Grande Ballroom in Detroit on the same bill with Canned Heat so, naturally, the audience hated us, booed us, you know.” Yet audiences for the Dead and other groups cottoned to the group once they moved to the San Francisco area in 1969. Said Frayne in those early days, “We’d like to do for country music what (Paul) Butterfield did for blues.”
Of the hit “Hot Rod Lincoln,” Frayne said, noting how he came to be its lead singer, “At that time I couldn’t sing a note really, but I could talk fast. It became apparent that I’d have to become Commander Cody, ’cause all the guys in the band who wanted to be Commander Cody would’ve been out of the question. So, the band voted that I would have to be Commander Cody because I could basically talk fast and had a good rap and gave pretty good radio. Then people started saying ‘Who’s the Commander and what’s he gonna do?’ So I had to come up and do a number; because I couldn’t sing, I found out there’s a long history of guys who couldn’t sing. I first found it out through Phil Harris and traced it back to Johnny Bond.”
He found his shot in a remake of “Hot Rod Lincoln,” originally conceived in 1955 as an answer song to a hit from 1949 titled “Hot Rod Race.” If that destined them to be a one-hit wonder commercially, it was OK with him that that was the hit: “I like the song, so it doesn’t bother me to do it every night. No problem whatsoever.”
The original band’s sound grew less country during the 1970s. “We really liked [our sound] and we played that kind of music until we were booed off stage at the CMA Convention in 1973,” he told Seattle PI in 2013. “In which case we decided that, well, if these guys are going to treat us like this, we’re not going to do their music anymore. Because their attitude was, ‘Who are these hippies? Take a bath, find a rock concert, et cetera, et cetera.’ That was the end of our interest in country and western swing. The people from Texas found out that I wasn’t from Texas and they thought that I was stealing their music and they didn’t get it.”
In that same interview, he said, “I smoke a lot of marijuana and it’s really easy to change your groove around when you’re stoned. … I especially enjoy painting while I’m stoned, and I keep doing that until this very day. On the other hand, I don’t smoke weed at rock and roll gigs anymore, whatsoever, because I’ve been more interested in remembering all the words for the song. Don’t forget, I’m an old geezer. I can’t afford to forget the words.”
In a 2012 interview, Frayne quipped, “The secret is we’ve been doing the same set for 40 years. It’s like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ without the gay attire and dancing.”
Frayne was well-regarded as a painter as well as band leader, and published a book of his visual art, “Art Music & Life,” in 2009. He also taught art, including a stint on the arts faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. An experimental video he made, “Two Triple Cheese Side Order of Fries,” is included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Frayne’s wife said on Facebook that memorial events are being planned. “We are working on 2 big gatherings, on both the east and west coast (The Island and the Bay Area) to celebrate the Old Commander’s phenomenal life, and to benefit musicians in need,” she wrote.
George Frayne, a.k.a. Commander Cody, Alt-Country Pioneer, Dies at 77 ~ NYT
With his band the Lost Planet Airmen, he infused older genres like Western swing and boogie-woogie with a freewheeling 1960s spirit and attracted a devoted following.
George Frayne, who as the frontman for the band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen melded Western swing, jump blues, rockabilly and boogie-woogie with a freewheeling 1960s ethos to pave the way for generations of roots-rock, Americana and alt-country musicians, died on Sunday at his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 77.
John Tichy, one of the band’s original members, who is now a professor of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said the cause was esophageal cancer.
Though the band lasted only a decade and had just one Top 10 hit, Mr. Frayne’s charisma and raucous onstage presence — as well as the Airmen’s genre-busting sound — made them a cult favorite in 1970s music meccas like the San Francisco area and Austin, Texas.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen was not the only rock band exploring country music in the early 1970s. The Eagles, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco and others mined a similar vein and were more commercially successful. But fans, and especially other musicians, took to the Airmen’s raw authenticity, their craftsmanship and their exuberant love for the music they were making — or, in many cases, remaking.
“He said, ‘We’re gonna reach back and get this great old music and infuse it with a ’60s and ’70s spirit,’” Ray Benson, the frontman for Asleep at the Wheel, one of the many bands inspired by Mr. Frayne, said in a phone interview. “He saw the craft and beauty of things America had left behind.”
Mr. Frayne and his band were more comfortable onstage than in the recording studio. They often performed 200 or more shows a year, and they were widely considered one of the best live bands in America; their album “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas” (1974), recorded at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, was once ranked by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 albums of all time.
“He was a comic-book character come to life,” Mr. Benson said of Mr. Frayne. “He looked the part of the wild man, chomping on a cigar and banging on a piano. But he was also an artist, who happened to use the band as a way to express a much bigger picture.”
George William Frayne IV was born on July 19, 1944, in Boise, Idaho, where his father, George III, was stationed as a pilot during World War II. Soon afterward the family moved to Brooklyn, where his father and his mother, Katherine (Jones) Frayne, were both artists. The family later moved to Bay Shore on Long Island, near Jones Beach, where George worked summers as a lifeguard.
Mr. Frayne’s first marriage, to Sara Rice, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Sue Casanova, and his stepdaughter, Sophia Casanova.
Having learned to play boogie-woogie piano while at the University of Michigan, Mr. Frayne used his musical talent to make beer money, joining a series of bands hired to play frat-house parties. He soon fell in with a group of musicians, including Dr. Tichy, who played guitar, and who introduced Mr. Frayne to classic country, especially the Western swing of Bob Wills and the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens.
Both Mr. Frayne and Dr. Tichy stayed at Michigan for graduate school and continued to play in clubs around Ann Arbor. Although they offered throwback country to students otherwise keen on protest songs, they were a hit. They just needed a name.
Mr. Frayne was a big fan of old westerns, especially weird ones like the 1935 serial “The Phantom Empire,” in which Gene Autry discovers an underground civilization. Something about sci-fi and retro country clicked for him. He took the stage name Commander Cody, after Commando Cody, the hero of two 1950s serials, and named his band after the 1951 movie “Lost Planet Airmen.”
He received his master’s degree in sculpture and painting in 1968 and that fall began teaching at Wisconsin State College-Oshkosh, today the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. But he was restless; he flew back to Ann Arbor on weekends for gigs, and when Bill Kirchen, the lead guitarist for the Lost Planet Airmen, moved to Berkeley and encouraged the rest to follow, Mr. Frayne quit academia and headed west.
The San Francisco scene was still in the thrall of acid rock, but the East Bay was more eclectic. Soon the band was opening for acts like the Grateful Dead and later Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper.
The Lost Planet Airmen grew to eight core members, several of them sharing lead-singer duties; there would often be 20 or more others onstage, dancing, playing kazoo and even, at certain adults-only shows, stripping. Their music was bright and up-tempo, centered on Mr. Frayne, who sat — or just as often stood — at his piano, longhaired and shirtless, pounding beers and keys.
A 1970 profile in Rolling Stone, a year before the band released its first album, called Commander Cody and His Lost Airmen “one of the very best unknown rock ‘n’ roll bands in America today.”
At first the Lost Airmen’s rockin’ country didn’t really fit in anywhere — neither in the post-hippie Bay Area nor in Nashville, where they were booed off the stage at a 1973 concert, the crowd yelling “Get a haircut!”
“We didn’t think of appealing to anybody,” Mr. Frayne told Rolling Stone. “We were just having a good time, picking and playing and making a few dollars on the side.”
In 1971 the band released its first album, “Lost in the Ozone.” It spawned a surprise hit single, a cover of Charlie Ryan’s 1955 rockabilly song “Hot Rod Lincoln,” with Mr. Frayne speed-talking through the lyrics:
They arrested me and they put me in jail And called my pappy to throw my bail. And he said, “Son, you’re gonna’ drive me to drinkin’ If you don’t stop drivin’ that hot … rod … Lincoln!
It was that song, and the band’s frequent trips to Austin, that allowed them room to find their place, nestling in among the seekers and weirdos piling into the city and building its music scene.
“They were plowing new turf, even if they were doing it with heritage seeds,” the Austin journalist Joe Nick Patoski said in an interview.
But the success of “Hot Rod Lincoln” haunted them, especially when they tried to reach too far beyond their fan base.
“Their success got them pigeonholed as a novelty band, and so the suits at the record company were looking for the next ‘Hot Rod Lincoln,’” Mr. Patoski said.
In 1974 they signed with Warner Bros. Records, but the relentless pressure to produce new music, and the band’s lackluster album sales, eventually broke them apart — a story documented in the 1976 book “Starmaking Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album,” by Geoffrey Stokes.
“The only thing worse than selling out,” Mr. Frayne told Mr. Stokes, “is selling out and not getting bought.”
After the band broke up in 1977, Mr. Frayne continued to perform with a variety of backup bands, always as Commander Cody. In 2009 he re-formed the Lost Planet Airmen, mostly with new members, and released an album, “Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers.”
He also returned to art, making Pop Art portraits of musicians like Jerry Garcia and Sarah Vaughan — collected in a 2009 book, “Art, Music and Life” — and experimenting with video production.
As a musician, he had one more minor hit, “Two Triple Cheese, Side Order of Fries,” in 1980. But it was the song’s video, directed by Joe Dea, that really stood out: A fast-paced, low-tech (by today’s standards) mash-up of 1950s lunch-counter culture and hot-rod mischief, it won an Emmy and is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
A unique feature of the destabilizing, horrifying Great Interruption of the past year and a half (and counting) is that it has nudged so many of us into a period of protracted introspection and reassessment. Superficially, we’ve discovered the wonders of sourdough starter and urban gardening, but beneath the surface something more significant has been going on. Especially during those long, pre-vaccine months of sheltering in place, it became somewhere between interesting and necessary to recalibrate, to inventory what we value, to look at who and what we surround ourselves with, and why.
Part of this process for me has involved a careful survey of what is literally on my shelves, which includes an ungainly collection of music housed on old media: vinyl, CDs and cassettes. I’ve deliberately reached for albums with which I have distant, uncertain relationships, producing new revelations. Foolishly, I’d dismissed Randy Newman as a Hollywood lightweight, but a return to the sharp, subversive danger of his 1974 album “Good Old Boys,” and the more recent “Dark Matter” from 2017, reminded me of his particular genius. The magnificent gospel compilation set “Goodbye, Babylon” from 2003 bathed me again in its heavenly glow every time I put it on, making me wonder why I’d ever consigned it to mothballs. Similarly, both Sun Ra and the Shaggs found their way back from the nether regions of my stacks and into regular rotation once again, each now making more sense than ever. And it had been too long since I’d spent time with Scott Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha”; the relevance of its poignant, resilient finale,“A Real Slow Drag,” gave me goosebumps.
And then came Cat Stevens. I’d first heard Stevens’s music as a teenager in the mid-’80s, when friends and I watched “Harold and Maude,” Hal Ashby’s paean to nonconformity. The film, which turned 50 this year, prominently features Stevens’s songs, including one that could be called its theme: “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” I decided that I did. The very next day I acquired a cheap guitar and began teaching myself how to play. Stevens’s songs eventually led me to Bob Dylan; Dylan led me to early-20th-century blues, jazz and country music; and by my early 20s I was living in New Orleans, fronting my first band. A few years later, after I moved to Brooklyn, a series of chance encounters led to a high-profile engagement for my quartet. Critics wrote nice things about us, we began making records, and for the past couple of decades I’ve been blessed with a music career, albeit a nontraditional one. Operating under the mainstream radar, I’ve headlined on stages ranging from the fancy (Lincoln Center) to the less so (dank basements in rural Romania). If my path has never followed conventional patterns, just consider its source; in a real sense, I owe it all to Cat Stevens.
Stevens’s road has been anything but a straight line. His career began in the late ’60s as a teenage pop star in Britain, before a bout with tuberculosis nearly killed him. During his convalescence his songwriting morphed, and he emerged as the acoustic-guitar-wielding, long-haired Pan most people still conjure in their minds when they hear his name. He achieved superstardom with evergreen standards like “Morning Has Broken,” “Moonshadow” and “Peace Train,” and toured the world as a major headliner. Then, in 1978, Stevens suddenly renounced his music career, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, auctioned off his instruments and rededicated his life to being a family man and a devout Muslim.
But he didn’t entirely disappear. His new religious beliefs led him in a number of directions. On the one hand, he donated time and money to education and charity — and, while his interpretation of the religion he’d embraced suggested that playing musical instruments was forbidden, he lent his well-known voice to spoken word and children’s albums that remain big sellers in the Muslim world. On the other hand, he became embroiled in the controversy surrounding Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie, leading many to dissociate themselves from his music.
Eventually, though, Stevens picked upa guitar and began writing songs again. In 2006, he returned to pop music under the name Yusuf, releasing the first of some tentative-sounding new recordings, but by 2014 he’d come around to accepting his musical past once again — at least halfway. Billing himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens (the name he currently uses; on Twitter, his bio says “Yusuf Islam the Artist also known as Cat Stevens”), he made an album with producer Rick Rubin, appeared at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and embarked on his first American tour since the ’70s. In concert, he began revisiting a broad sampling of his early work with a commitment and passion many of his fans never expected to see — myself included.
Now, he is reissuing his Cat Stevens catalogue. Last year, he released golden-anniversary box sets of what are arguably his artistic high-water marks, the albums “Mona Bone Jakon” and “Tea for the Tillerman,” originally released within seven months of each other in 1970. This fall, 1971’s “Teaser and the Firecat” will get its own deluxe reissue, and there are plans afoot to follow it up with anniversary editions of each of Stevens’s 1970s albums, sequentially (1978’s “Back to Earth” is the only one to be reissued out of order, in 2019). He’s also just completed a draft of his autobiography. For devotees of Stevens’s classic material, it can feel as though he’s making amends for having walked away from his music all those years ago.
But is that really fair? Or true? Meditating on this during the pandemic made me think about what responsibility, if any, artists have to their audience. If we agree that art has the power to reveal us to ourselves, to help us make sense of the world and our place in it, do we then have the right to expect artists to be faithful stewards of that relationship? There may be no musician who prompts this question as directly as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. And since Stevens now appears to be in legacy-tending mode, it seems appropriate to wonder what exactly that legacy is — for me, for him, for us.Yusuf/Cat Stevens with, from left, daughter Asmaa, his granddaughter, and wife Fauzia in 2007, when he received an honorary degree for his humanitarian work at Britain’s University of Exeter. (Anthony Devlin/PA Images/Getty Images)
In December, during the darkest winter many of us have ever lived through, I began digging through the new box sets of “Mona Bone” and “Tillerman.”Listening to those records again, and having recently turned 50 myself, a creeping realization began to take shape: that more than just being professionally indebted to Stevens, I might actually not even be the person I am today had I not been exposed to his music. But not just any of it. This music. These albums, from which the bulk of the “Harold and Maude”soundtrack had been culled.
I suspect that this has to do with the crucial developmental juncture I was at when I first encountered them, at that time in life when just existing can feel like one big, adolescent hurt. The world stops making sense; the relationships we have with our families, friends and ourselves are constantly being dashed against the rocks. It’s a time when many of us first grasp for the anchor of music and hold on for dear life.
More than anything, Stevens’s pair of 1970 albums are about searching for authenticity in a culture that does not assign great value to it. (For my high school yearbook quote, I’d chosen a lyric from a later song, “Drywood,” that went: “Throw down your mask and be real.” Old friends still tease me about it.) If the lyrics have a rebellious streak, it isn’t one with a political ax to grind, but a personal one. The questions Stevens asks are the result of objectively noting the decisions we’re prompted to make as individuals, and as a society.
On songs like “I Think I See the Light,” “Miles From Nowhere” and “On the Road to Find Out,” Stevens is trying to sort through what is real and what is not. On “Where Do the Children Play?” his Socratic questioning of the status quo continues to be relevant:
Well you’ve cracked the sky, scrapers fill the air
But will you keep on building higher
’Til there’s no more room up there?
Will you make us laugh, will you make us cry?
Will you tell us when to live, will you tell us when to die?
The recordings of these songs are full of feeling, full of seeking and longing. They express a kind of hopeful loneliness, what Victor Hugo called “the happiness of being sad.” Embedded in them too is that sense that initially resonated so deeply with me: the promise of eventual and ecstatic release. This was the sensibility that, in my case, fueled spontaneous road trips in search of new experience, and epic bouts of music-making that eclipsed basic needs like food and rest. Stevens’s songs supported these ways of thinking and being, encouraging me to live as fully and freely as possible.
Buena Vista Social Club’ is both the name given to this extraordinary group of musicians and the album, recorded in just seven days in 1996 in Havana’s 1950s vintage EGREM studios. It was clear from the atmosphere of the recording sessions that something very special was taking place. However, no one could have predicted that Buena Vista Social Club would become a worldwide phenomenon – awarded a Grammy in 1997 and, at 8 million copies, outselling any other record in the same genre. The acclaim of the original album has elevated the artists (including Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González & Omara Portuondo) to superstar status, inspired an award-winning film by Wim Wenders, and has contributed to popularising Cuba’s rich musical heritage. Produced by Ry Cooder for World Circuit, the timeless quality of the music and the sheer verve of the veteran performers have ensured that this will go down as one of the landmark recordings of the 20th century. To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the album’s recording, producer Ry Cooder and World Circuit’s Nick Gold have gone back to the original tapes and into the archive to produce this Deluxe Remaster package, featuring previously unheard tracks from the original 1996 recording sessions, previously unseen photos, and new liner notes.
Bonnie Raitt, Jim Rooney, Fiona Prine and Jody Whelan will all make appearance
For its 50th anniversary, join us in an online listening party for John Prine‘s self-titled debut. NPR Music’s Ann Powers will be joined by John’s wife Fiona Prine, their son Jody Whelan, legendary singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt and producer Jim Rooney in a live conversation about this monumental album.
The story of John Prine’s debut album is like something out of a movie: a postal service worker makes his way up the Chicago folk scene, gets noticed by Kris Kristoffersonand signs to Atlantic Records not long after. “Good songwriters are on the rise, but John Prine is differently good,” went the original Rolling Stone review. These were not just story-songs, but deceptively simple excavations of character. The likes of Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt and the Everly Brothers covered “Sam Stone,” “Paradise” and “Angel from Montgomery,” but moreover revered Prine’s quiet sense of timing, humor and empathy.
“John Prine captured people in those moments of supposing when life gets really small and almost impossible, but then another thought occurs,” Ann Powers wrote in her 2020 remembrance. “A laugh, or a dignified response, or even a sense of blessing.”Article continues after sponsor message
“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight (Version 2)” is from the latest deep dive into the Bob Dylan archives, the five-CD “Springtime in New York: The Bootleg Series Vol. 16 1980-1985.” The track is similar in feel — though full of Dylan’s improvisatory variations — to the take that appeared on “Infidels” in 1983, with a new mix that dials back the unfortunate 1980s drum sound. Dylan had a superb studio band, with the Jamaican team of Sly (Dunbar) and Robbie (Skakespeare) on drums and bass, and a conversational interplay between Mick Taylor (formerly of the Rolling Stones) on slide guitar and Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) on electric guitar. It’s not the most radical discovery in the set — which also includes rarities like “Enough Is Enough” and “Yes Sir, No Sir” — but it arrives with live footage of the sessions, a rare glimpse of Dylan in motion in the studio.
Bob Dylan, ‘Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight (Version 2)’
The pirate radio stations of the 1960s are part of British pop folklore, but America had its equivalents broadcasting from the border with Mexico. And its most celebrated star DJ was the near-mythical Wolfman Jack. Every DJ has their “radio persona” – a larger than life personality created to reach across the ether and plant itself in the imagination of the listening faithful.
Immortalised in George Lucas’ breakthrough movie American Graffiti, the Wolfman derived from an era when radio’s disembodied voice could be almost mesmeric.
His influence on radio today can still be heard… you just need to know what to listen for. Of course, Wolfman Jack wasn’t born with that name. He was born Bob Smith and he grew up in the tough New York neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Neglected by his parents he sought succour and inspiration from the voices he heard on the radio at night beaming up from the Mexican border.
When you heard him you knew you’d unlocked the door to a really secret world. In his 20s he landed a number of DJ jobs on local radio stations where he experimented with a variety of bizarre and eccentric DJ personas.
Finally in the late 1950s, determined to take on border radio – the American-equivalent of Britain’s off-shore pirate radio stations – he made his way down to Mexico to the great “border station” XERF and bought himself a show.
Amongst Bob Smith’s heros were disc jockey Alan Freed, aka Moondog, and blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, whose names formed the inspiration for his own alias, Wolfman, a name which debuted as early as the first show.
“There was nothing as exotic, as mysterious and as forbidden as when I first stumbled across Wolfman Jack broadcasting from the border,” says Nic Patowski, a teenager when he first tuned into station XERF. “He was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
“You had no idea who he was or what he was but you knew whatever he was doing it was probably wrong. When you heard him you knew you’d unlocked the door to a really secret world.”
“When I first heard him… I was thinking of old recordings of the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. He had this incredible confidence.”
MANCHESTER, England — The ethereal sound of the kora, a centuries-old West African instrument, reverberated as Sona Jobarteh, a virtuoso from one of Gambia’s most celebrated musical families, plucked its strings with her forefingers and thumbs.
Under purple stage lights at the Manchester International Festivalin July — her first performance since the pandemic began — Ms. Jobarteh added her velvet voice to the crisp sound of the kora, a 21-string instrument that combines the qualities of a lute and a harp. She sings in Mandinka, a language spoken by one of Gambia’s many ethnic groups, and the words descended like rainfall on the audience in northern England.
Like her father and relatives stretching back generations, Ms. Jobarteh is a griot — a musician or poet whose tradition is preserved through the family bloodline. And in West Africa the griot fills a far broader role: not just as a kora master, but also as a historian, genealogist, mediator, teacher and guardian of cultural history.
“The griot is someone who is a pillar of society, who people go to for guidance, for advice, for wisdom,” said Ms. Jobarteh, who is 37.
Until Ms. Jobarteh, kora masters had one other notable characteristic: They were always male. By tradition, the playing of the kora is passed from father to son, but for many years Ms. Jobarteh was her father’s only child. “Whatever I do, it’s always in the awkward box,” she said, laughing.
She initially shunned the label of first female kora master, preferring to be appreciated for her abilities rather than her gender. “I hated it with a passion,” she said. “I felt like no one would listen to what I was playing, that all they would do is observe what I am.”
But she has come to embrace that status, in part because her achievements have inspired young female students. “It’s much bigger than just being about me,” she said. “It’s about instilling that seed of inspiration in girls.”
The kora was also what brought her parents together.
In 1982, a year before Ms. Jobarteh was born, her mother, Galina Chester, who is English and who had never left Britain, flew to Senegal. She was traveling with Ms. Jobarteh’s half brother, Tunde Jegede, a British-Nigerian who is now a multi-instrumentalist and composer, to connect him with his African heritage.
Toting a piece of paper scrawled with the name of a kora master, Ms. Chester drove across the desert to Gambia, where there was no airport at the time, to the house of Amadu Bansang Jobarteh, whose influence was so broad that he served as an adviser to Gambia’s first president.
There, she met the kora master’s son and primary student, Sanjally — who would go on to become Ms. Jobarteh’s father. “That’s how she met my father, and how my story began,” Ms. Jobarteh said.
Ms. Jobarteh’s childhood straddled two worlds: Britain, where she was born, and Kembujeh, her grandfather’s village in Gambia, where, enveloped by the warmth of her extended family, she found her “cultural grounding.”
Griot women are typically taught to sing, but her grandmother Kumunaa encouraged her to sit with her grandfather and listen to the kora.
A few years ago, Ms. Jobarteh’s mother shared letters with her daughter in which Kumunaa had predicted that the girl would become a griot and pleaded that her lineage be nurtured.
“I just wish she was alive for me to ask her what was in her mind,” Ms. Jobarteh said. “She knew I was a girl. She knew it was not acceptable.”
Ms. Jobarteh’s first kora teacher was Mr. Jegede, her half brother, whom she began playing the instrument with at age 3. (Although Mr. Jegede is a virtuoso in his own right, he is not a griot, coming from outside the Jobarteh bloodline.)
She later became determined to carve out a path in classical music. At 14, she took composition lessons at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, outside London. Yet her initial instrument remained in her periphery: The school library displayed a kora that Tunde had donated as a student there. Drawn to it, she tuned and played it, and the school eventually gave it to her.
A year later, she enrolled in the Royal College of Music, where she learned the cello, harpsichord and piano. But her personal musical legacy wasn’t welcome. One instructor dismissed the kora as an “ethnic thing,” she said, and another said of the instrument, “If you want to succeed, this is not a part of it.”
Three years into her education there, Ms. Jobarteh deliberately failed her annual assessment in piano and cello. “I was shaking,” she said. “It felt so wrong, but I just knew, ‘I can’t do this to myself anymore.’”
The college declined to comment for this article.
Ms. Jobarteh instead asked her father to officially teach her to play the kora, and went on to train with him for several years. He told her, “I have a duty to give you what is mine,” she recalled.
Some families say the instrument dates to the establishment of the griot tradition in the 13th-century Mandinka empire. The first written account of the kora, by the Scottish explorer Mungo Park, appeared in 1797, according to Lucy Durán, a professor of music at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Its popular origin story, Ms. Jobarteh said, is that it was stolen from a jinn, a supernatural being mentioned in Islam.
The Mandinkas and griots attracted widespread interest after the writer Alex Haley traced his ancestry to a Gambian village in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Roots.” But their ancient melodieshad made their way across the Atlantic centuries earlier, aboard ships carrying enslaved Africans, and morphed into the early American blues.
The kora, with its improvised, oral tradition, can take decades to master. “You learn with your ears, not with your hands,” Ms. Jobarteh said.
For years, she was reluctant to perform in Gambia, where a professional female kora virtuoso had never been seen onstage. But her stage debut with her family, in 2011, was met with adulation.
The release of her debut album that year was also a leap of faith, as Ms. Jobarteh sang in Mandinka rather than in English, which could garner more commercial success. “I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve just put my life down the plug hole,’” she recalled.
The album propelled Ms. Jobarteh’s music around the world, from the United States to New Zealand. And that brought her something far more meaningful than royalties.
“It makes Africans feel something, to see that someone is being respected to sing in their own language, dress in their own clothes, play their own music,” she said. “That is a message not just for Gambians — it’s for the whole African continent.”
Although preserving her heritage is Ms. Jobarteh’s passion, she says her real purpose is educational reform in Gambia — a broader mission that aligns with her role of griot.
In 2015, she opened The Gambia Academy in Kartong, a coastal town, in part to prevent a brain-drain of young people seeking better prospects abroad. “I don’t want the next generation to have to do that,” she said, “where you have to have the privilege of having European connections or titles to be able to succeed in your own society.”
With a curriculum that centers on West African traditions, the school now has 32 students, including her 14-year-old son, Sidiki, and 9-year-old daughter, Saadio. That has helped her pass down her family tradition, too, and onstage in Manchester Sidiki played the xylophone-like balafon and Saadio percussion.
They are learning the griot repertoire — not from their father, but from their mother, a guardian of seven centuries of tradition.
“Buena Vista Social Club,” which was recorded 25 years ago and released in 1997, was the unlikeliest of blockbusters: a collection of decades-old Cuban songs, featuring musicians in their 60s, 70s and 80s, that has now sold in the millions worldwide.
The album was named after a long-defunct club in Havana where Black musicians had once gathered. With its release, Buena Vista Social Club also served as the name of the collective of musicians who performed on the album and, later, became an imprimatur for all sorts of projects connected to them.
Recorded in one week in Havana, “Buena Vista Social Club” led to concerts, tours, a 1999 Wim Wenders documentary centered on a triumphant Carnegie Hall show, and extensive solo and group projects over the next decades, bringing international recognition to the musicians. On the 25th anniversary of its recording, the album is being reissued in a deluxe package that includes an additional disc of tracks from the original sessions.
The album itself grew out of a setback. Its executive producer, Nick Gold of World Circuit Records, and the guitarist and producer Ry Cooder went to Cuba with a musicological concept: uniting an older generation of Cuban musicians with some of the West African musicians, from Mali, who had been influenced by Afro-Cuban music. The Malians didn’t get visas, so the Cubans and Cooder had the studio to themselves, and they turned to playing some favorite songs — some they had written themselves, some that had become Cuban standards, nearly all of them dating back before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
Somehow, the album found an audience far beyond niche so-called “world music” listeners and devoted revivalists. As both a music and commercial phenomenon, “Buena Vista Social Club” has turned out to be a complexly layered symbol and expression of rediscovery, vindication, historical memory, translation, nostalgia and Cold War politics. Now, 25 years later, we can add more layers: nostalgia for the moment of “Buena Vista Social Club” itself. This is an album that’s far more than its voices and instruments.https://www.youtube.com/embed/o5cELP06Mik
Here, critics from The New York Times discuss how the album comes across a generation later.
JON PARELES Indulge me with an anecdote. In 2000, I visited Cuba for an utterly amazing festival of rumba. It was three years after the release of “Buena Vista Social Club,” well into the album’s commercial explosion. A typical Havana tourist, I wandered through the old city center, where it seemed like there was a bar with live music on every corner. What I remember vividly was a host outside one club, who knew an American when he saw one. “We have old guys!” he announced.
ISABELIA HERRERA I like your anecdote, Jon, because it captures how the concept of nostalgia is key to understanding the legacy of “Buena Vista Social Club.” The aura around the project (as well as the images in the reissue’s packaging) evokes these “old guys” smoking cigars in black-and-white photos, or playing instruments on the street near colorful vintage cars — a particular, antiquated image of pre-revolutionary Cuba in the American public consciousness.
It’s a notion that almost fetishizes the idea of isolation: one that suggests that Cuban musicians and listeners are totally separated from contemporary popular culture, frozen in time during the so-called “golden era” of the 1940s and ’50s. Notably, the liner notes of this anniversary edition open with a quote from Cooder: “The players and singers of the ‘son de Cuba’ have nurtured this very refined and deeply funky music in an atmosphere sealed off from the fall out of a hyper-organised and noisy world.”
Framing “Buena Vista” within the context of isolation diminishes its achievements and those of Cuban music before and after it. As the scholar Alexandra Vazquez has written, the uptick in compilations of and guides to Cuban music that followed “Buena Vista” helped generate plenty of myths about the island. They contributed to the fantasy that Cuban musicians ceased to innovate after the 1940s and ’50s, and proliferated the idea that you have to visit the island and immerse yourself in its vintage culture “before it changes forever” — as though Cuba is some kind of hidden paradise to be discovered, rather than a place that people call home.
I say this as someone who grew up in a household that adored “Buena Vista Social Club.” I have fond memories of my father singing “Dos Gardenias” in the evenings after dinner and a glass of wine, and returning to the album brings me back to a special part of my childhood. But I do think it’s worth pushing against that nostalgia, because the mythology of Buena Vista Social Club has tended to eclipse the actual music and its history. This is especially true in the way that it presents its musicians as being “rediscovered” or “saved” from erasure, when singers like Omara Portuondo enjoyed plenty of international success before this project (for one, she toured the United States with the group Cuarteto D’Aida and performed with Nat King Cole in the 1950s).
PARELES You’re so right, Isabelia: The illusion that Cuba was somehow frozen in time, like the 1950s cars in old Havana, was definitely part of the aura of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It’s one of the many agendas that I doubt the album’s makers fully anticipated. For one thing, the old repertoire turned out to align, aesthetically and for some people politically, with nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Cuba, a complicated thing.
There was also something about the sonics of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It was recorded in Havana’s venerable Egrem studio in real time, on analog tape on a rickety recorder (which needed repairs on the first day of sessions), and without fancy post-processing, all of which also gave the music an extra patina. In 1996, you’d never get that piano sound in a studio in Los Angeles.
So in some ways, there was a sense that the album was a time capsule. But it wasn’t, exactly; if you wanted a time capsule, you could easily listen to actual vintagerecordings. “Buena Vista Social Club” was also self-consciously retro. As elegant as the musicianship was, the singers’ voices were weathered with age, and they were crooning about romances from decades past. No one was pretending that the years hadn’t gone by; part of the appeal was that the performers and songs had mellowed with age. The reissue includes some alternate takes of songs, and to me, it sounds like the original choices were the more relaxed, cozier ones.
GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO Jon, I have a different memory that feels like a nice counterpoint to yours. I was in South Africa at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, a good 15 years after your visit to Cuba. One of the featured performers, on the largest of five stages, was the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. It had some “old guys,” of course, but also younger musicians who had come into the band well after its founding in 1996, as it continued to tour — a sign of the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club brand of nostalgia, but also of Cuban music. They commanded the audience. But a lot of what they played didn’t sound like what was on the original album; it felt like a decidedly broader, and more decidedly danceable, sampling of traditional Cuban music.
On “Buena Vista Social Club,” the tempos are slower and the horns far scarcer; it’s guitars and voices mostly, the sound of musicians throwing something together in a Havana courtyard or around a kitchen table. So to your point, Jon, about this record not exactly being a perfect time capsule, it sounds a bit like these musicians remembering these songs (a number of which are decades-old originals by the group’s members). That’s why it’s so rewarding to watch the documentary: You can see these musicians, as they perform, bask in what these songs represent to them.
Isabelia, to your point, I do think American audiences can often be guilty of thinking about listening to “world music” as an attempt to pin down or understand the music of a foreign place, which leads to an impulse to freeze things, and ends up in the kind of nostalgia you alluded to. I can never help thinking of “Buena Vista Social Club” in a lineage that runs through Alan Lomax and David Attenborough — of recordings that propose, dubiously, to provide a keyhole view into an entire musical culture — as much as I think of it as a “Cuban” record.
PARELES Gio, you brought up what to me is the album’s defining element: memory. The Cuban elders — along with younger admirers like Juan de Marcos González, who tracked down the musicians, led the backup group and maintained it as the Afro-Cuban All Stars; and Portuondo, who as Isabelia said had her own career in motion, but happened to drop in to the “Buena Vista Social Club” sessions — were playing songs they remembered, fondly but without forgetting all that had happened in between. Listeners outside Cuba could bring their own memories — or romanticized fantasies — of pre-revolutionary Cuba. And now, with the reissue, we have memories of memories.
We’re also looking back on what became a turning point in how the outside world perceived Cuban music — and, also, how other cultures decided to treat the music of their own elder generations.
Buena Vista Social Club became a useful, widely extended brand. And the “Buena Vista Social Club” template — gather the survivors of previous eras into a collective — got applied in other regions. Tex-Mex border music got Los Super Seven, with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiménez. Southwest Louisiana swamp-pop got Lil’ Band O’ Gold, with Warren Storm. There were latter-day reunions of great African groups like Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.
Buena Vista Social Club wasn’t the only impetus for projects like those; they were also encouraged by rare-groove crate-diggers (like Cooder, who had collected old Cuban music). But the astonishing commercial run of “Buena Vista Social Club” certainly encouraged gatekeepers to look back on music that spoke of an idealized past.
But did it point a way forward as well?
HERRERA Revisiting this album as an adult, I am immediately drawn to the warmth and intimacy of these recordings. On the alternate take of “Pueblo Nuevo,” you can feel a sense of conviviality. In this version, the atmosphere of the studio itself is audible: the spoken conversation in the background, or the playful, whistled melody that follows Rubén’s González’s sprightly piano keys as he transitions from a danzón to a mambo style.
All of those details are in conversation with the actual music, and they remind us of the humanity of this recording: the fact that it is communal and collectively shared. It puts me in the studio, but it also puts me in my family’s basement, with all of my father’s CDs and records, immersed in the theater of emotion, anguish and joy this music renders.
It speaks to what you were saying Jon, about this anniversary as a memory of a memory. And listening as a young adult, I feel it demands immediate reverence and respect — for these elders, who were masters of improvisation and innovation, and whose music deserves to be celebrated.
RUSSONELLO What’s funny is that in actuality, this music doesn’t really stand in for Cuban music, writ large, as Isabelia pointed out, it’s often asked to do. Much of it is rooted in son and trova, African-derived folk musics dating back to the 19th century that form the backbone of a lot of Cuban dance music. But it’s really something adjacent to the up-tempo dance styles that are so central to Cuba’s musical identity, and were huge just before the revolution.
The other albums that some of the Buena Vista Social Club’s members put out separately (many after 1997) gets you closer to the sound of Cuban dance music. One great example: “Mi Oriente,” a lively, easily streamable collection of dance sides that Ibrahim Ferrer, a Buena Vista vocalist, recorded in the 1950s and ’60s with Chepín Y Su Orquesta Oriental.
Listening to the new collection, I appreciated the opportunity to listen to a new set of music from these mythic sessions — without the ring of familiarity but, in many cases, the same level of catchiness. Also, there are a few tunes that are simply so infectious, they easily could’ve made it onto the original album, like “Vicenta” and the equal parts tender and full-blooded “A Tus Pies.”
PARELES Gio, you’ve picked the two most finished songs among the outtakes, and you’re right — they could easily have joined the original album. One thing that strikes me about the other tracks is how casual the sessions sound. They clearly weren’t thinking “mythic” at the time.
On three tracks featuring Rubén González on piano — “Mandinga,” “El Diablo Suelto” and “Siboney” — he’s playing with his usual puckish elegance, and the tape was running, but people are chatting nearby. (González, who according to the liner notes hadn’t played piano in years before Buena Vista Social Club was assembled, was the most enterprising of the “old guys”; he also got a superb album of his own, “Introducing…,” out of these sessions.)
Most of the other outtakes are clearly rehearsals, not that I mind; 25 years later, it’s a fascinating glimpse at how the music came together. Listening to the album now, I also have a stronger sense of Ry Cooder’s presence than I had noticed on its release. For Cooder, Buena Vista Social Club was one among many projects — like “The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band Featuring Ry Cooder,” “Talking Timbuktu” with Ali Farka Toure from Mali and “A Meeting by the River” with V.M. Bhatt from India — that gave him a chance to collaborate with far-flung musicians: listening respectfully but definitely joining in. He’s tucked into the original album’s arrangements, most recognizably on slide guitar. And the last track on the expanded “Buena Vista Social Club” is a trio version of “Orgullecida” — Cooder and Compay Segundo on guitars and Manuel Mirabal on trumpet — that moves the song into ragtime, one of Cooder’s home territories.
HERRERA Jon, you asked earlier if “Buena Vista Social Club” pointed a way forward. It is hard to avoid the reality that the project follows in a long line of musical projects that ended up “reintroducing” or “summarizing” musical cultures for foreign ears — even if the recording initially emerged as a happy accident. Ultimately, I am so glad these musicians achieved the success they did, and that new markets were opened to them, because they were well-deserving of compensation.
Today, there is such a vibrant community of Cuban hip-hop, and dozens of other Cuban musicians that I hope get a similar level of recognition on an international scale. At the very least, “Buena Vista Social Club” offered more curious, thoughtful listeners an entire new musical world. But a more ideal way forward would undo the colonial logic that underpins the legacy of “Buena Vista Social Club” — the requirement for Western support in order for “foreign” music to be valued — so these artists could be appreciated on their own terms.
Isabelia Herrera is an arts critic fellow. She covers popular culture, with a special focus on Latin American and U.S. Latino music. She was previously a contributing editor at Pitchfork and has written for Rolling Stone, Billboard, GQ, NPR and more. @jabladoraaa
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles
NPR’s Rachel Martin talks to music journalist Judy Cantor-Navas about Cuban music’s impact on the Buena Vista Social Club. The group’s popular album came out 25 years ago this month.
Music impresario George Wein, who spawned the modern music festival when he helped launch the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals, has died at the age of 95.
According to a statement from his family, Wein died peacefully in his sleep early Monday morning.
Wein co-founded the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 and the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Newport was the first and largest event of its kind in the U.S., setting the standard for outdoor music festivals to come. https://www.youtube.com/embed/po1Yg6XspGk?rel=0Jazz Night in America YouTube
Wein, who was also a musician himself, lived a life most jazz fans dream about. He knew the giants and innovators by their first names. At the very first Newport Jazz Festival, Wein arranged a reunion between saxophonist Lester Young and singer Billie Holiday. The two former collaborators hadn’t spoken for years. He told a private Newport audience in 2003 that Young hesitated in the wings.
“This is one of the most poignant memories of my life,” Wein said. “‘Cause there was this magnificent saxophonist — one of the great figures in the history of the music — standing there and wasn’t going on the stage. Billie sang about three choruses of the first song, and the next thing you know, he says, ‘I guess I’ll have to go up and help the Lady out.”Article continues after sponsor messagehttps://1974e3a1f781e05475e4d09565774703.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The performance jump started Davis’ career. But NPR contributor and former New York Times jazz critic Nate Chinen, the director of editorial content for Member station WBGO, says that Wein’s goal was much bigger than lending a hand to individual artists.
“I know that he was especially passionate early on about winning a kind of respect for jazz in sort of mainstream culture,” says Chinen, who also co-wrote Wein’s memoir, Myself Among Others.
Chinen says Wein was proud of having a hand in making jazz the accepted American art form it is now. But Wein’s relationship to the artists was just as important.
“He understood the musician mindset,” Chinen observes, “and he really really cared about how musicians were doing. He wanted to support them as promoter and producer and also just as a friend to the music.”
He was a musician, a child prodigy. And in his teens, he played jazz piano professionally around Boston. As an adult, he managed Storyville, one of the city’s clubs, and took notice of the folk music revival embraced by Boston college students in the 1950s.
He booked the likes of Odetta and guitarist Josh White into his club. And the reception they got convinced him to launch a folk festival.
“Well, as I remember it, it was pretty big deal for me,” says Joan Baez. At that time, Baez had a steady coffee shop presence around Harvard Square. But she says Newport was something else.
“I don’t think there had been a place where there was one tent full of say, Shaker white singers, and the next tent full of black blind blues singers from Mississippi, you know? And they began that they were all taking for granted that they were all making music.”
Newport’s popularity led Wein to start a production company. He took his approach to New Orleans, where he boosted the city’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, and eventually exported his concept around the world.
In 2007, Wein sold his company, and tried to enjoy semi-retirement. But two years later, the festivals he founded had gone bankrupt, and at age 82, Wein set up a non-profit foundation to the protect Newport’s future, as he told NPR in 2011.
“The only chance we have of keeping the festival alive after I’m gone,” he said, “is to have a foundation and people that want to keep to it alive.”
Speaking on the occasion of Newport’s 50th anniversary in 2004, George Wein told the public radio show American Routes there was a very basic reason for his success: “My real talent was making things happen.”
And he did — for more than half a century — for fans and musicians alike.