Inside the National Recording Registry: 2008

Each year, the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress chooses 25 recordings to be preserved for all time. Inside the National Recording Registry, produced by BMP Audio, highlights some of those selections. Our series receives production support from the Library of Congress.

tumblr_o1vtqmhxpQ1texqglo1_1280T-Bone Walker’s ‘Stormy Monday’

T-Bone Walker swung the blues, made his guitar cry like no-one else and wrote a classic in “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday’s Just As Bad).” It’s among the latest batch of recordings named to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.

Walker first recorded “Stormy Monday” in 1947. His daughter, Bernita Walker, says it’s a classic because it speaks to everyone.

“You know, Monday morning most people don’t want to get up to go to work cause they’ve had a great time over the weekend,” she says, “and now they’ve got to hit that 9 to 5.” She continues, echoing the lyrics, “Tuesday is just as bad. Wednesday’s worse ’cause that’s the hump day, and Thursday’s also sad.”

B. B. King picks up the song’s tale of the work week.

“The eagle flies on Friday. [That] means that he gets paid.”

After two nights of partying, it’s time to straighten up and fly right.

“Sunday he go to church and fall on his knees and pray,” King says. “That, I think, is one of the best ways of singing the blues.”

The Texas Blues

T-Bone Walker was born Aaron Walker on May 28, 1910, in Linden, Texas. He started playing guitar and banjo when he was 13. Blind Lemon Jefferson was a family friend and an influence on Walker — the young man would lead the legendary blind blues musician to gigs.

Walker played in carnivals as a teenager — singing, dancing, playing banjo, accompanying such well-known blues singers as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, and learning how to put on a show — a skill his daughter Bernita says he mastered.

“He would do the splits in time with the music that he was playing. And his facial [expressions] were just phenomenal. And the women would scream and holler. And even the men were clapping like, ‘Go, Bone.’ And I would just sit there smiling because that was my dad doing those great performances.”

But T-Bone Walker was also a ground-breaking blues guitarist, says one of those who’s followed in his footsteps: guitarist Duke Robillard.

“T-Bone Walker single-handedly developed the style and way to play blues on electric guitar that was totally different than anything that had been done before,” says Robillard. “He used a lot of double timing in his soloing, which at that time was something only horn players did, you never heard a guitar player do it — very unusual and very innovative. He’d be playing actually twice as many notes per beat.”

Walker Bridged Blues, Jazz

The guitarist and singer made his first recording — a blues 78 — when he was 19. He didn’t record again for more than a decade, and by that time, he was playing in the Les Hite and Freddie Slack orchestras.

Walker had already met a young man who would do for jazz guitar what Walker did for blues — electrify it. Charlie Christian was six years younger than Walker. The two played shows together and Christian influenced Walker’s approach to the blues. In the March 1977 issue of Guitar Player Magazine, the late Jimmy Witherspoon compared Walker to another jazz great.

“All I can say is that he’s the Charlie Parker of guitars when it comes to blues,” Witherspoon said. “And in jazz guitarists, he’s right with Charlie Christian. No one else can touch T-Bone in the blues on guitar.”

Walker went on to perform and record with the likes of Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie, among many others.

The Roots Of Rock

Walker held the guitar differently — perpendicular to his body and parallel with the stage floor. He also played it behind his head long before Jimi Hendrix took that stunt mainstream. That wasn’t the only Walker influence on rock ‘n’ roll.

“Chuck Berry just took T-Bone’s style and put it to a different beat,” says Robillard. “And a lot of the technique and the little T-Bone phrases that define his style, Chuck Berry, when he rearranged the beat, they became rock ‘n roll guitar licks. So in essence, T-Bone was not only the first electric blues guitar player, but he was the first electric rock ‘n roll guitar player, really.”

But it was Walker’s “Stormy Monday” blues that became his signature. Robillard says it’s a different kind of blues.

“The guitar chord line, it’s a little guitar ninth chord figure. That was a unique thing and it became T-Bone’s signature. And that chord line seems to have grabbed everybody because everybody plays it with that line in it. And it’s almost like a law, that you have to, when you play ‘Stormy Monday.'”

T-Bone Walker not only inspired Robillard and B. B. King, but also Freddie and Albert King, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Like B. B. King, Walker was a living link to pre-war blues for the younger generation of players. Walker continued performing almost to the end. But a lifetime of ill health and drinking led to a stroke in 1974. Aaron T-Bone Walker died on March 16, 1975.

Fiorello_LaGuardiaNYC Mayor LaGuardia’s Legendary Radio Readings

The year is 1945. The world is at war, and New York City’s newspaper delivery men are on strike.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia solves the problem.

Independent producer Ben Manilla shares the story behind LaGuardia’s legendary radio readings of comic strips like Little Orphan Annie. It’s part of our series on legendary audio moments in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

roy-orbison-photo-david-redfernMercy: Behind Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Roy Orbison. Appropriately, this year has seen the release of a four-disc retrospective called The Soul of Rock and Roll. And the Library of Congress has added Orbison’s song, “Oh, Pretty Woman” to the National Recording Registry.

The song was written for Orbison’s first wife, Claudette Frady. One day, she left for the store — by “walking down the street” — and by the time she returned, Orbison had written what would become his most enduring hit.

Frady died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, two years after the song hit No. 1 on the charts.

Orbison’s second wife, Barbara Orbison, says the song was “like Bruce Springsteen said: It’s the best girl-watching rock ‘n’ roll song ever.”

Independent producer Ben Manilla spoke with Barbara Orbison and Bill Dees, the co-writer of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” to tell the story behind of Roy Orbison’s most enduring hit.

“He turned to me with the guitar lick, and he said, ‘I feel like I need to say something while they’re playing [that guitar lick],'” Dees says. “I said, ‘Well, you’re always saying [the word] ‘mercy,’ why don’t you say mercy?’ You know, I said, ‘Every time you see a pretty girl you say mercy.'”

120716_kittywellsKitty Wells: Don’t Blame The ‘Honky-Tonk’

In 1952, Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” addressed wild women and finding women on the wild side of life. Without a female voice, it was natural that an answer song was in order, and J.D. Miller’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” became a controversial hit for then-budding country singer Kitty Wells. The Library of Congress recently added the song to the National Recording Registry.

“Honky Tonk Angels” referred to the women who hung around honky-tonks — dance-hall girls who’d dance with you for a drink and who lived that kind of “wild side of life.”

There were more divorces in the post-war era than the United States had ever seen. There was more delinquency and more smoking. People would ask, “Why are we suffering this moral decay?” At the time, many believed it was because women weren’t in the home.

“You know, it’s OK for a man to go around and cheat and hang out in the bars and expect a little woman to be home with a hot meal,” country singer Emmylou Harris says.

A Housewife Gets Banned

In 1952, Wells was a 33-year-old housewife and mother. She stepped into the studio and recorded a song that in many ways captured the tensions of the time.

“All of the sudden, she spoke to a whole psyche,” Harris says. “A whole generation of women who probably didn’t know that they were not represented on the airways.”

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” was banned on the NBC radio network and on the Grand Ole Opry. Harris says it not only offended the male-dominated country-music scene, but also the public at large.

“Back then, it wasn’t really considered proper for a young singer who wasn’t married to ride around the country with a bunch of guys — even if it was perfectly innocent and they were the guys in the band,” Harris says. “In the case of Kitty, she had to be married to Johnny Wright, so it was OK for her to be on the bus with Johnny Wright and the rest of the guys, because she had a chaperone: her husband.”

Paving The Way For Women

Wells would not describe herself as a feminist. There’s always been a strain of songs in the folk and country-music traditions that spoke from the woman’s point of view. A woman like Wells could sing about how a woman feels without thinking she had to be a feminist to sing those songs.

“Well, I really didn’t think too much about it, ’cause I always, you know, was pretty natural with the way I felt and the way I, you know, carried myself around,” Wells says. “And of course I tried to make that hit with ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.’ Well, Capitol Records got to recording the girl singers, so now we got just about as many girl singers as there are men singers.”

Harris is one of those singers — and very vocal about her love for the Queen of Country Music.

“She was the perfect representation for that particular time,” Harris says. “She really paved the way for a lot of women to get on that bus and ride on down the road.”

Mary Bufwack, along with her husband Robert Oermann, is the author of Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800 to 2000.

IMG_00041‘Head Hunters’ Found A New Direction In Jazz

Herbie Hancock‘s 1973 classic Head Hunters, the first platinum-selling jazz record, is now considered one of the defining moments in jazz fusion. The groundbreaking album — a true fusion of influences, capturing elements of jazz, R&B, funk and African music — became a hit among jazz and non-jazz listeners alike, thanks to its danceable grooves, complex compositions and lengthy improvisations.

The Library of Congress recently opted to preserve the album in its musical collection as one of the country’s most culturally significant audio recordings.

Hancock, along with producer David Rubinson and Steve Pond (author of Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz’s First Platinum Album) recently reflected on Head Hunters‘ creation, as well as its long-lasting impact.

“At a certain point, I became a kind of musician that has tunnel vision about jazz,” Hancock says. “I only listened to jazz and classical music. But then, when I noticed thatMiles Davis was listening to everything — I mean, he had albums of Jimi Hendrix, he had Beatles records, he had Rolling Stones, James Brown — I started to re-examine this kind of closed attitude that I had.”

Hancock says he found great inspiration and freedom in the music of James Brown and Sly Stone, and sought to incorporate some of funk’s distinct sounds and rhythms into his group. Hancock also further experimented with electronic keyboards such as the Fender Rhodes, clavinet and the ARP Odyssey synthesizer, which provided the famous bass line of the song “Chameleon.”

“I didn’t realize at the time,” Hancock says, “but looking back, I see that it was carving out a new direction.”