Tag Archives: Paul McCartney

Stuff Riffmaster Knows: The Beatles & Their Gear

Riff Banner28127_10150190489000591_536200590_12508602_5992375_nI’ve been playing in a rock and roll band with Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner since the very early 1980’s. Not only is Pete a gifted shredder of the Fender Stratocaster, he knows more about rock and roll than it’s probably healthy to know. Especially where it concerns The Beatles — who, Pete will happily tell you, he actually saw live at Shea Stadium. (Pete was also at Woodstock. Yeah. That Woodstock.)

Young Riffmaster with axe.

Young Riffmaster with axe.

Over the years, my band mates have exchanged thousands of Emails in an informative and entertaining chain of rock trivia, history and lore that is sometimes staggering in its detail. Never more so than when our own guitar hero, Riffmaster Pete Van Wagner, drills down into the details of the equipment used by The Fab Four.

What follows is an Email that Riffmaster recently sent. Riff’s response was prompted by a photo of The Beatles in the studio, Emailed to the band by our brilliant drummer, Rockin’ Ronny Crawford.

From the Riffmaster:

What’s got me going a little bit crazy is the tan Vox amps in the September 1962 Black Eye studio photos. Prices for these amps have gone through the roof on the vintage market. But what’s the story with The Beatles’ tan Vox amps? I’ve always seen them with black Vox amps. When I first saw these photos I thought that maybe the amps were Abbey Road studio amps.

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In earlier 1962 photos The Beatles are seen at the Cavern playing Gibson and Fender tweed amps.

This is April ’62:

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That’s George’s Gibson GA-40 amp on the left behind John. That’s John’s Fender Deluxe amp on the right behind Paul. That’s Pete on the drums.  Also note John’s Rickenbacker guitar, that he bought in Hamburg, is still it’s original Natural tan color.  More on this later.

But here they are at band practice at the Cavern with Ringo in August. Pete’s out, Ringo’s in. The old Fender and Gibson amps are gone and the tan Vox amps are in. Hmmm. So I guess they are The Beatles’ amps, not Abbey Road’s.

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Here they are at the Cavern not long after the September recording session. Black Vox amps. Also shirts, vests and ties.  Brian Epstein’s been here. Note Ringo’s drum head still reading “Ringo Starr.” My brain is starting to hurt. The happy faces indicate how happy the Boys were with their free new Vox amps — and with Ringo Starr on skins.

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Luckily I have the book, The Beatles Gear.  Hopefully I’ll find answers there.

Here’s the story:

d1343f6b36d6a7d549fb9996a2adad91The Beatles came into EMI’s Abbey Road studios to record “Love Me Do” and three other tunes using their old Gibson, Fender and Paul’s TruVoice amp with what’s been called a coffin speaker cabinet. The TruVoice hummed a lot and the other amps weren’t much better. George Martin told Brian Epstein that The Beatles would need professional gear if they were going to continue to be recording artists. George also told Brian at this time that for the next session he, George, would provide a drummer as Pete wasn’t up to the task.  

Brian went out to buy new amplifiers but was told that the Beatles still owed money for the TruVoice amp.  Brian payed off the Beatles’ unpaid loans to Hessy’s Music shop in Liverpool and bought the tan Vox amps for George and John.  Paul continued to use the Coffin speaker cab (on the far right in the picture above) with an unknown amp powering it.  Hessy’s suggested to Brian the he contact Vox and try to work out a deal with Vox direct.  Brian did and was given the black Vox AC30 amps in exchange for free use of The Beatles in any Vox promotion.  And so it was that The Beatles were given free Vox amps for their entire career and Vox got to use the Beatles as free endorsers for years to come.

Note below: John’s Rickenbacker has now been refinished in black.

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Shea Stadium 1966.  Their last tour.  I’m sitting over on the first base line with my cousin Michelle.

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Blog 2014: The Fifth Year In Review.

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2014 was the fifth year for this blog — and though I have to admit I was a relatively infrequent blogger this year — there were a handful of events I could not let pass without trying to say something. Most important was the loss of two iconic figures who granted me (and many others) the privilege of their invaluable friendship and mentorship. The passing of Sheldon Patinkin and Ray Shepardson made 2014 a year I will always remember.

Paul’s Voyage of Discovery & Etc. has attracted 189,401 viewers since it began — 24,929 in 2014. The busiest day of the year was September 21st with 505 views. The most viewed post that day was O Captain! My Comedy Captain! — my post on the passing of Sheldon Patinkin.

This is not the real subscription sign up box. The real one is further to the right. And up a little…

I continue to be honored that 179 subscribers have now signed on to have my posts automatically delivered to them via e-mail. (And 59 more who follow this blog on Twitter.)

Are you a subscriber?

If you’re not — then look to your right at the photo of the saluting Matey and follow the simple instructions to “Hop Aboard!”

What follows is a list of The Top Ten Most Popular Posts of 2014.

Just click on the title of each post to access the original article.

1. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time

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There’s nothing like a Top 10 list to promote discussion on a blog – and this December 5, 2011 post did just that. It’s one of the posts that has generated the most comments. A lot of people feel I’ve left one of their favorites off the list. Check it out – and then weigh in with your own opinion. Just realize that your opinion on rock & roll singing cannot possibly be as informed as my own.

2. 
O Captain! My Comedy Captain!



Sheldon Banner

I don’t know where my life would have gone if the great Sheldon Patinkin had not walked into a small storefront theatre on Howard Street in Evanston — and took my silliness seriously. Sheldon didn’t just change my life. He changed generations of lives. I will miss him every damn day. But, in essential ways, he will always be with me — and with all of the thousands of creative people whose lives he touched. (Posted on September 21, 2014.)

3. My Book Report: “The Battle of Midway”midway

What a great book! What an amazing chapter of world history! On January 23, 2012, I wrote this review of a book that captures all the incredible heroism, good luck, and turns of fate that made this epic World War Two naval battle an overwhelming victory that turned the tide of the war against Imperial Japan. In 2013, I wrote another report on an excellent World War Two book, The Day of Battle, about the campaign to liberate Italy. A few weeks after I wrote that post, my family and I visited the American cemetery in Tuscany and paid our respects to the soldiers whose valor, sacrifice and victory are recounted in Rick Atkinson’s fine book.

4. 
Farewell to Ray Shepardson, the Visionary Who Saved the Theatres

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I honestly had no idea how to headline this tribute to the great Ray Shepardson, who died suddenly and shockingly in Aurora, Illinois in the spring of 2014. The man who saved dozens of great old theatres and movie palaces from the wrecking ball was a man of prodigious energy, drive, and “can do” creativity. He is greatly missed by many. This was posted on April 16, 2014 — my birthday.

5. Victory at Pearl HarborPearl Harbor

Originally posted in 2010 on the anniversary of the “day that will live in infamy” – this post has become an annual event. A lot of military history fans visit this blog, but I think Pearl Harbor fascinates and resonates with Americans whether they have an interest in military history or not. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks took more American lives – but Pearl Harbor was the shocking opening act in a drama that ultimately made the United States the world’s preeminent superpower.

6. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffooneryblackboc

Though we didn’t hear much about it in 2013,  the Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired a lot of posts on this blog since 2011. This post, written on November 2, 2011, has proven to be the most popular. Maybe that’s because people agree that we don’t need a bunch of foolish, immature anarchists screwing up a noble movement that ultimately helped to put Barrack Obama back in office. Without Occupy Wall Street, would Romney’s attack on the 47% have evoked such a profound and spirited response? Without Occupy Wall Street, would the concept of the 99% and 1% have ever entered the Zeitgeist? And can Occupy Wall Street — or something even more effective yet peaceful — please come back in 2o15?

7. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

On December 15, 2010 – the 215th birthday of our Bill of Rights – I wrote this basic primer on the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution and it’s become one of the most-read posts in the history of this blog. I guess that’s because Americans still give a damn about their rights and are keen to understand their Constitutional foundation.

8. Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog back on January 9, 2010 celebrated my brief but soul-satisfying collaboration with the legendary underground comix artist, Jay Lynch, who gave Vic and me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a series of Bazooka Joe comics. It was one of the coolest chapters in my creative career. The Practical Theatre Company, Saturday Night LiveBehind the Music, The Vic & Paul Show and Bazooka Joe. Classics all. Can I retire now?

9. Paul McCartney & The War of 18121812banner

This was originally posted on June 18, 2012. That day was not just Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday – it was also the 200th anniversary of The War of 1812. 130 years after the young upstart United States declared war on Great Britain, Paul McCartney was born. I thought that was a real fun fact.

10. LeBron: The King Moves Onlebron-banner-2

As a Cleveland native, I’ve often been asked my opinion of LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers several years ago — and my friends and co-workers are usually shocked that I’m not upset or indignant or jilted, etc. And while the blogosphere hardly needed one more commentary on LeBron James’ move to the Miami Heat, I wrote this post on July 9, 2010 to explain that LeBron James didn’t owe me anything. He’s a professional basketball player who wants to win and be remembered as the best to play the game. The two NBA championships he’s won in Miami since I wrote this post have given LeBron all the scoreboard he needs. in 2014, The King came back to Cleveland, which is doubtless the reason for renewed interest in this post.

So, that’s the best of 2014. Stay connected. Subscribe. And please keep posting your comments!

Here’s to a worthy, adventurous voyage in 2015!

And here are the All-Time Top 10 Blog Posts from January 2010 up to today:

1. Happy Birthday Bill of Rights!

2. Victory at Pearl Harbor

3. The Occupy Wall Street Movement Doesn’t Need Black Bloc Buffoonery

4. The Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time

5. History & Honeymoon: Part Three

This post was the #3 post in 2010. 24 years ago, my wife Victoria and I went to Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields on our honeymoon! I needed no other assurance that I had married the perfect woman. On our 20th anniversary, we returned to Gettysburg. Now both students of the battle, we walked the battlefield on July 1, 2 and 3, 2010 on the 147th anniversary of that critical conflict. My four-part account of our battlefield tramping became one of the most popular items on the blog. (Originally posted July 20, 2010)

6. A Childhood Memory of Kent State, May 4. 1970Kent State

On the May 4, 2012 anniversary of this very dark day in America history, I posted this personal remembrance of a young Ohioan’s earliest memories of that terrible day. Unlike the Pearl Harbor post, I haven’t re-posted this article every year — but readers still find it. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.” The shootings at Kent State should never be forgotten.

7. Aliens Among Us?

I’ve always wondered where singular, epochal, “out of this world” geniuses like William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Bob Dylan came from. So, on January 26, 2011, I wrote this speculation on the possible alien origin of such monumental minds. Evidently, my curiosity (if not my Erich Van Daniken “ancient astronaut” fantasy) is still shared by a lot of people who read my blog in the past year.

8. Growing Up in the Space Age

The last American space shuttle launch inspired this July 14, 2011 remembrance of my personal connection to the Space Age. This popular post salutes my fellow Ohioan, John Glenn, who served as both the first man to orbit the Earth and as a Senator from my home state. I wish that my three daughters had grown up experiencing something half as exciting and inspirational as The Race to the Moon.

9. My Book Report: “The Battle of Midway”

10. Bazooka Joe, Jay Lynch & Me

 

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Penny Lane: Then & Now

My daughter Emilia is traveling in Liverpool, the home of John, Paul, George and Ringo:  The Beatles.

Getting Free

The monumental Beatles fan I am, the moment I got to Liverpool, England, was the moment I made sure I got myself to all IMG_0716the Beatles’ landmarks: Paul McCartney’s childhood home, John Lennon‘s childhood home, Strawberry Fields, St. Peter’s Church, and, of course, Penny Lane. I, of course, know all the lyrics to Penny Lane (as any halfway-decent Beatles fan should), and all the while I roamed the Lane, the lyrics were bopping through my head. How does the Penny Lane of today hold up to the Penny Lane McCartney immortalized in song? Well, let’s have a look at the lyrics.**

Verse #1:
In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello

Now, in my travels on Penny Lane, I found 2 barbershops, neither…

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It Was 49 Years Ago Today…

Beatlesbanner1101934-004-CD2C8F59I was just a young, working class Cleveland boy — two months shy of my 6th birthday — and what happened on this day, 49 years ago, at 8:00 pm ET on Sunday February 9, 1964 became an unforgettable moment in my life.

2e76b29da002e58a18b357d85a67a91ae0a2392aOn that incredible, magical, epochal day, The Beatles – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — made their first live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City. There were just three TV channels in those days – and most televisions in America had their rabbit ears tuned in to the Sunday night broadcast that marked the U.S. debut of the rock n’ roll band that would soon transform international pop culture.

Beatles_399x400Upon their arrival in New York and in the months to follow, I was besotted by The Beatles. My older brother Peter and I would hang out beneath our neighbor Dino Zaccardelli’s bedroom window on West 33rd Street, listening to the glorious, transformative album that Dino’s mom had just bought for him: Meet the Beatles.

I vividly remember how Peter and I listened to that thrilling album over and over, playing passionately along on badminton rackets posing as guitars. Unfortunately, we rocked out while standing on his older brother’s car – and that got is in trouble. (We left a lot of jubilant, rocking footprints on his hood and fenders.)

220px-IntroducingtheBeatlesAt the time, I had no clue that Meet the Beatles was actually the second Beatles’ album released in the United States. Ten days before the release of Meet the Beatles, Chicago’s Vee-Jay Records released the Beatles’ first U.S. album, Introducing…The Beatles.

As far as my brother Peter, Dino and I were concerned, Meet the Beatles was where it all began – and The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS 49 years ago was our introduction to full blown Beatlemania.

usa_meet-the-beatlesFrom those indelible days in February 1964, my life was changed in ways I am still learning to appreciate. To have grown up during Beatlemania is a formative, fundamental  blessing that subsequent generations cannot possibly understand or fully appreciate. (Because they take rock & roll for granted.)

My daughters learned to love The Beatles.

RR0910_603_lgBut I was grew up with The Beatles.

49 years ago – my brother Peter and I got lucky.

All us kids got lucky.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

YEAH!

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Paul McCartney & The War of 1812

Today is not just Paul McCartney’s 70th birthday – it’s also the 200th anniversary of The War of 1812.

200 years ago on June 18, 1812, the young upstart United States declared war on Great Britain – then the preeminent world power.

130 years later, on June 18, 1942, Paul McCartney was born.

22 years after McCartney’s birth, he and his band, The Beatles, led a British Invasion of the United States.

McCartney’s British Invasion was far more peaceful and harmonious than the British invasion during the War of 1812: the one in which the invaders burned Washington DC and the White House — necessitating Dolly Madison’s legendary heroics in saving the portrait of George Washington.

Given that England gave us Paul McCartney 70 years ago, I am willing to forgive those rampaging Redcoats for laying waste to our national’s capitol in the early 19th Century.

Besides, we kicked their high-stepping, bagpipe-playing butts at The Battle of New Orleans anyway.

Which only makes me long for a McCartney cover of that great Johnny Horton tune.

I’ll just have to settle for this cover by another musical artist from Great Britain, Lonnie Donnegan – the King of Skiffle: an early influence on Paul and his Beatles band mates.

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One Song: Four Artists

A great song has many lives.

Those who write a song give it life – but after that, their song takes on a life of its own: shaped and reimagined through the experience, talents and style of the artists who cover it. And when the song is a great piece of work – a composition that puts a deeply human, emotional message to a beautiful melody – it will have a long life. A great song will be addressed, caressed and blessed by many musicians over the course of decades.

Some great songs seem impossibly visionary and too emotionally mature to have been written by the callow youths who penned them.

Inspired in a dream, 22-year old Paul McCartney gave us “Yesterday” in 1965.

Since then, there have been more than 1,600 recorded covers of that classic gem.

Bob Dylan was only 20 when he wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 1962.

It’s amazing that such poetry, passion and profound wisdom could flow from someone not even old enough to buy a drink in the Greenwich Village folk clubs.

And Jimmy Webb was just 19 years old when he wrote the brilliant romantic musical short story, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” around 1965.

Listen to that song again – and picture a teenager building that heartbreaking classic, verse by verse.

Right around the time that the prodigies Webb and McCartney were writing songs that would become standards, 16-year old Jackson Browne wrote an introspective ballad called “These Days”.

It would be nearly a decade before Browne put the song on his second album, “For Everyman”, in 1973.

Here’s a much older Browne performing “These Days”. The song seems perfect for an older and wiser man looking back on a long, hard life. But as you listen, try to strip away the years – and picture a 16-year old kid writing such lyrics.

Now, I’m not a big fan of Nico, but she did have the good taste to record “These Days” in 1967. Pay attention to the arrangement of her version. Four decades later, you’ll hear the influence of Nico’s arrangement in Glen Campbell’s 2008 cover.

Gregg Allman recorded his own cover of “These Days” for his debut solo album, Laid Back, released in 1973, like Browne’s “For Everyman”. (Allman and Browne were both 25-years old at the time.)

Here’s 41-year old Allman performing “These Days” in 1989, harmonizing with the great Graham Nash. It’s remarkable what an additional 16 years of life experience brings to the performance of a song originally written by a kid who had only been alive for 16 years.

The first time I can remember hearing “These Days” was when Glen Campbell featured it on his 2008 album, “Meet Glen Campbell”. Glen was 72 years old when he sang it – and listening to an older and wiser Glen connect with the song, I thought Jackson Browne had written it recently. Surely, a man with something like Glen’s years and experience created those lyrics, and the melancholy yet somehow hopeful melody they’re strung upon. Maybe Jackson had even written it for Glen? But no.

It’s just another moving example of how a great tune written by a soulful young songwriter of preternatural talent can be given new life by a great artist.

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The Top 10 Rock & Roll Singers of All Time.

Ever since The Beatles turned me on to rock and roll at the age of 5, I’ve been singing along to the radio, trying to recreate the style and power of the great rock voices that inspired me.

Some signature performances, like Roy Orbison’s operatic masterpiece “It’s Over” and Freddie Mercury’s incredible “Bohemian Rhapsody”, challenged my limits as a singer. On my best day, I couldn’t reach those soaring heights of vocal power — but trying to sing along with Roy and Freddie made me a better singer.

I’ve been singing in rock and roll bands since high school, and there’s nothing like trying to cover a classic song to make you appreciate the artist who sang that song on the record. Just listen to teenage Stevie Winwood sing “Gimme Some Lovin’” by the Spencer Davis Group — or Bob Seeger tearing through “Get Out Of Denver”. Those performances literally leave you breathless.

Over the years, I’ve become a connoisseur of fine rock and roll vocals. So, just to start one of my favorite arguments, I’ve come up with a list of the Top Ten Rock & Roll Singers of All Time. This is not a list of my favorite singers. Indeed, many of my favorite singers – Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Paul Rogers to name a few – did not make the list.

This is a list of the ten best rock and roll vocalists who ever picked up a microphone.

1. Elvis Presley

Elvis is King. Period. And I don’t want to hear from a bunch of folks who can’t get that bloated, drug addled Elvis out of their minds. Elvis put rock and roll on the map because his voice was magic. There is a quality to Elvis Presley’s voice that thrills the listener – in the same way the sound of Paul McCartney and John Lennon singing harmony gives you goose bumps. Every rock and roll singer after Elvis has been singing in his shadow. That’s why Elvis was the first inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. (The Hall of Fame website calls him “the undisputed King of Rock and Roll”.) Listen to Elvis sing “Trying To Get To You” – and bow down to The King.

2. Ray Charles

There’s nothing Ray Charles couldn’t sing. The blues, country, rock and roll, soul, and rhythm and blues – Ray knocked them all out of the park. But as versatile as he was, no matter what style of song he sang, he made that tune inimitably his own. If Ray Charles had put a rock and roll band together in the 1950’s, he would have owned the rock and roll top 10. And though he recorded everything from gospel to standards – Ray Charles rocked hard enough to be in the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.  Check out Ray rocking “Baby, What’d I Say?”

3. James Brown

Another member of that first class of Rock & Roll Hall of Famers, James Brown is one of those singers that you just don’t even try to cover. Not even in your most drunken moment in a karaoke bar. Even if James Brown didn’t have the most out-a-sight dance moves ever invented, even if he didn’t have the most fabulous pompadour that ever adorned a rocker’s head – he would still have the most dynamic voice in rock and roll history. Like Ray Charles, James Brown didn’t make a lot records that would be considered straight up rock and roll: he was far too funky to play it in 1-4-5. But all you have do is listen to James belt out “(I Got You) I Feel Good” to know why he’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

4. Little Richard

Along with Elvis, Little Richard wrote the other half of the rock and roll singer’s lexicon in the 1950’s. Without him, The Beatles don’t wag their heads and sing, “Oooooh!” I can’t imagine what rock and roll singing would be like without the example of Little Richard: the freedom, the abandon, the soaring screams and “wooohs” – the joyous, anarchic, frenetic, rhythm-pounding pulse of his performances have influenced every rock and roller who followed. That’s why, he’s another guy they put in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Imagine what conservative Middle American parents thought when they heard Little Richard sing “Long Tall Sally”. Dangerous, man. Wild and dangerous.

5. Paul McCartney

The best singer in the best rock and roll band of all time, Paul McCartney earns a spot on this list even if his only vocal performance in consideration was a song he released after The Beatles broke up. No singer dares to cover Paul’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” – one of the most spectacular rock vocals of all time. And Paul can still sing this song today at the age of 69. I heard him sing it at Staples Center in Los Angeles a few years back and it was still powerful. Paul McCartney is a force of nature. Here’s he is, decades before his Knighthood, singing “Maybe I’m Amazed” with his other band, Wings.

6. Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin is not just one of the best female rock and roll singers ever – she’s one of the greatest rock and roll vocalists period. There’s never been another woman who fronted a rock band with such a fearless, soulful, and savage style. Like the great blues singers, Janis understood the sexual subtext of rock and roll – but she didn’t sell sex on the stage – she sold the power of the music. She was magnetic and magnificent. All I ask is that other, inevitably lesser singers stop trying to cover Janis’ classic, “Piece Of My Heart”. It just can’t be done.

7. Burton Cummings

Perhaps the least recognizable name on this list – and probably the only Canadian – Burton Cummings is hands-down one of the very best rock and roll singers that came out of the 1960’s. Lead singer for The Guess Who, Cummings sang classics like “No Sugar Tonight”, “American Woman” and “Share The Land”. But if you want to know why I think he’s one of the best rock vocalists of all time, all you need to do is listen to him sing “These Eyes.” Toward the end, when he does a soaring riff on, “These eyes are crying” – it’s one of those vocal moments that try as I might, I’ve never been able to replicate in the shower or in my car. Burton Cummings is a master class in rich, powerful, and exhilarating rock and roll singing.

8. Roger Daltrey

Roger Daltrey is the best rock and roll screamer of all time. I personally owe him a lot. (Back in college, Fat Dave Silberger compared me to Daltrey, and I still haven’t gotten over his undeserved but much appreciated flattery.) Fronting a magnificent trio – Daltrey’s voice was the fourth instrument in one of the most powerful live rock bands to ever take the stage. Pete Townshend is one of the great rock and roll songwriters of all time – and Roger’s incredible voice made Pete’s ambitious, operatic songs possible. Case in point: “Love, Reign O’er Me”

9. Robert Plant

I was never a huge Led Zeppelin fan back in the day, but in retrospect, maybe it was because I was afraid to cover their songs. Why? Because of freaking Robert Plant! Led Zeppelin was extremely popular inn the early 70’s when I was in my first high school band, but trying to belt my way through Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” or attempt “Stairway to Heaven” was to invite comparison with Robert Plant and, thus, failure. Still, trying to sing along with Plant made me a better singer. I saw him a few years ago at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles during his tour with Alison Krauss. Dude’s still got it.

10. John Fogerty

I love John Fogerty. My father was born in New Orleans, Louisiana – but Berkeley, California native Fogerty had even more bayou in his soul than my dad did. When I was an 11-year old kid, the songs of Creedence Clearwater Revival jumped off the radio and connected with me more than anything other than The Beatles. It was that crunchy, snarling guitar groove – and John Fogerty’s voice: a rolling, driving, inescapable growl – like an unrelenting, passionate Little Richard with more politics than sex on his mind. I devoted myself to screaming through Creedence songs like Fogerty, pushing myself to my vocal limits. But I’ve never approached the master’s performance on “Fortunate Son.” Listen – and, once again, bow down…

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Aliens Among Us?

In his 1968 book, Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, author Erich von Däniken speculated that the religions and technological advancements of some ancient civilizations were the work of ancient astronauts who were welcomed to Earth as gods.

Now, I dig contemplating the mysteries of Stonehenge, Easter Island, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and those crazy ancient lines dug into the rock on the Plains of Nazca in Peru (pictured below) – but I can’t say I subscribe to von Daniken’s theory.

However…

At various times in human history, certain people have appeared on the scene who were so far ahead of their peers — intellectually, artistically, scientifically, philosophically and morally – that you have to wonder just where the hell they came from. Were these geniuses simply the result of natural human evolution? Were they the special blessings of a loving God, eager to advance His human experiment? Or did they somehow drop out of the sky as the gift of extraterrestrial overlords, desirous of seeing human civilization grow and prosper for reasons we can’t yet fathom.

The following 15 great minds were so far advanced for their time that it seems entirely plausible that they were, indeed, space aliens plunked down among us to enlighten humanity and move us Earthlings forward: or at least the result of divine intervention. Either that, or humankind just got lucky.

I admit that this is an entirely Western list. I’m sure students of Eastern culture would rank Buddah and other Asian greats in this elite category. But I don’t know a damned thing about Eastern culture beyond the legend that claims Marco Polo brought pasta from China to Italy – which is hard for a proud Italian like me to endure. Maybe that’s why I’ve never delved much deeper into Asian studies.

At any rate, here’s my list of 15 possible alien geniuses dropped out of the sky into the world of mortal men.

1. Socrates (469-399 B.C.) What most school kids know about this leading light of ancient Greek philosophy is that he got in trouble for corrupting the youth of Athens and was made to execute himself by drinking hemlock. (Probably the first and only reference to hemlock most of us will hear in our lives.) Among those Athenian kids learning at Socrates’ feet was Plato, who also did some pretty advanced thinking of his own – and wrote a classic account of Socrates final days. Socrates work is the foundation for the study of Western philosophy. Tuition-paying parents can blame Socrates for the fact that their sons and daughters will earn a college degree that almost guarantees poverty. More than two centuries after downing his hemlock cocktail, Socrates is still corrupting the kids.

2. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) Another great Greek philosopher, Aristotle was a student of Plato. He taught Alexander the Great. (Which is a good thing if you’re Greek and a bad thing if you’re Persian.) Aristotle was a great writer — the first to explore logic (long before Star Trek’s Spock). He is considered one of the central figures of Western philosophy. Back in the day, Aristotle and his followers were known as the Peripatetic school, after the ancient Greek word peripatetikos, which means “given to walking about”. He must have been a fast walker, because, to this day, students find it hard to keep up with Aristotle.

3. Jesus (1-33 A.D.) For the moment, let’s just set aside the divisive two-millennia long debate over whether Jesus was a god or a man – or both. Even if he was no more than a Galilean carpenter’s son, his “love your neighbor as yourself” philosophy was revolutionary. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was certainly not the prevailing attitude of Jesus’ time – and few people live up to that Golden Rule today. But it’s a philosophy that could save humanity, if only we’d all live by it. Whether you’re a deist or not, read The Beatitudes — and marvel at all that wisdom flowing from an impoverished, poorly educated guy from an oppressed backwater of the Roman Empire. Turning water into wine was a nice trick, but the transformational ideas Jesus expressed were truly miraculous.

4. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Where in the hell did Leonardo da Vinci come from? Okay, so he’s one of the best painters of all time — and one of the great scientists and inventors, too. The same guy who painted The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa also drew up plans for a helicopter and a tank. His notebooks are filled with brilliant ideas – which he liked to write backwards! (My wife is the only other person I know who can do that with ease.) How good was Leonardo? Da Vinci was so good that Michelangelo was jealous of him. Leonardo was the quintessential Renaissance man: painter, draftsman, sculptor, architect, engineer and jazz hipster. (I made up that last one.)

5. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Simply amazing. To call William Shakespeare the greatest writer in the English language still sounds like faint praise. A supreme poet, a brilliant wordsmith, and an unparalleled playwright, he created nearly 40 plays and about 150 sonnets – and they all kick ass. Hamlet not enough for you? MacBeth not enough? King Lear? Othello? Romeo and Juliet? It’s just silly how incredible the Bard’s body of masterworks is. You can’t go through life for a day – you can hardly live through one hour – without hearing or reading or seeing a phrase written by Shakespeare. And half the time you don’t even realize it! Bill Shakespeare is not simply the greatest writer in the English language: he is the English language.

6. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) The second great Italian on this list, Galileo was a revolutionary astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher. He’s been called the “the Father of Modern Science – and for good reason. He’s the guy who figured out some fundamental things about gravity, the laws of motion – and that little business about the Earth moving around the Sun (rather than vice versa). The great authority of Galileo’s time, The Catholic Church, rewarded him for his discovery of this essential astronomical truth by charging him with heresy and threatening to torture him if he didn’t take it all back. Galileo was in his 70’s when they and took him to the church dungeons to show off the instruments of torture they planned to use on him if he didn’t recant. Knowing the Church had already burned his scientific predecessor Giordano Bruno at the stake for heresy, Galileo recanted and spent the last seven years of his life under house arrest. Nice, huh?

It was a memory of such state-sponsored religious tyranny that led people like the next man on this lost to espouse the separation of church and state.

7. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) Ben Franklin is not just one of America’s Founding Fathers. Given his Olympian libido, he might be literally our founding father. But his infamous satyric exploits aside, Ben Franklin is still an incredible character: the most multi-faceted Renaissance man since Leonardo da Vinci. Franklin was an innovative author, humorist, printer, politician, inventor, and scientist. His legendary kite-flying experiments advanced our knowledge of electricity. He wrote hundreds of wise and witty sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, the odometer – and contributed to much of the philosophy and lawmaking that gave birth to the government of the United States of America. Oh yeah — and as our first ambassador to France, Franklin was instrumental in bringing the French into our revolutionary war against England. Game over. Bow down to Ben.

8. Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) Born in a log cabin and largely self-educated, Abe Lincoln overcame the disadvantages of a hardscrabble frontier life on the edge of American civilization to become the central figure in saving the American experiment from itself. How did such a rough-hewn man become the supreme poet that wrote the Gettysburg Address – or his second inaugural address? (“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right…”) And it’s not just Honest Abe’s flair for poetry that rings down the centuries – it’s also his uncanny leadership in the Civil War. No American president since George Washington (and possibly James Madison) faced a more grave threat to America. But Washington had already won his war before he took office as President – and Madison’s English invaders also had Napoleon to deal with. Lincoln faced a wholly internal threat. He persevered and won. And he freed the slaves, too. He was the right man at the right time. Did we just get lucky? Or were our alien overlords looking out for us?

9. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Naturalist Charles Darwin took a great scientific leap forward — and infuriated generations of Biblical fundamentalists — with his pioneering research on natural selection leading to his theory of evolution. Without Darwin’s tireless voyages and observations and his bold assertions of evolutionary theory, many of the great scientific and medical advances of the 20th century would have been impossible. No scientist since Galileo has pissed off more small-minded religious conservatives than Darwin. That alone is a fine reason to celebrate his landmark achievements.

10. Mark Twain (1835-1910) We all had to read Mark Twain’s books in school — but Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are just the tip of the Twain iceberg. Twain’s literary, journalistic, intellectual and humanist advancements are still underappreciated in his own land. But the more you read Twain’s works, the greater he becomes. In fact, Mark Twain may be the greatest writer in the English language since Shakespeare. What couldn’t this guy write? Drama? Check. Comedy? Check. Adventure? Check. Political commentary? Check. Travelogue? Check. Philosophy? Check. Twain wrote it all – and he did it in a voice that still sounds contemporary today. Do yourself a favor and get his newly published autobiography. Mark Twain is the American literary colossus. (And no, let’s not replace the N-word in Huck Finn with “slave”. Twain knew what he was doing.)

11. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) In his own time, Thomas Edison was like Bill Gates, Steven Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg combined. Is there any modern appliance that we now take for granted that Edison didn’t invent? The incandescent light bulb, sound recording devices, the phonograph and the film camera would be enough to make him a legend – but Edison did much, much more.

In his New Jersey laboratory, The Wizard of Menlo Park pretty much invented the modern world. Without Edison, there would be no vinyl records – and thus, no late 20th Century rock & roll. ‘Nuff said.

12. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) In a violent century marred by two world wars, pogroms, massacres, bloody civil wars, nuclear bombs and revolutionary struggles against colonial powers – Gandhi achieved independence for India through non-violence. And he did this in a region where tribal, religious and ethnic violence was a way of life. Gandhi showed humanity a way forward, just as Jesus did two millennia before him. And, like Jesus, Gandhi paid for his non-violent vision with his life.

13. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) Martin Luther King brought the non-violent humanism of Jesus and Gandhi to America – combined with soaring, moving poetry not heard in the political realm since Abraham Lincoln. As a result, he helped America to advance civil rights and form a more perfect union. What was Martin Luther King’s reward for his genius? Alas, the same reward that Jesus, Lincoln and Gandhi got. (Noticing a pattern here?)

14. Bob Dylan (Born May 24, 1941) How did a 22-year old kid from a backwater like Hibbing, Minnesota write “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”? Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation by merging folk music and rock and roll with cutting-edge social, political and passionately human commentary. Dylan’s influence on popular culture since the early 1960’s is impossible to measure. My favorite Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks, is the most romantic collection of love and loss poems since Shakespeare’s sonnets — and you can sing them. In my estimation, the greatest poets in the English language are Shakespeare, Lincoln and Bob Dylan.

15. Lennon & McCartney (Met Saturday, July 6, 1957) The only partnership on this list, Paul McCartney and John Lennon are the greatest songwriting team in history: their influence on popular culture in the second half on the 20th Century and beyond is immeasurable. Eleanor Rigby, In My Life, Yesterday, Let it Be, Across the Universe – the list of their undying classics goes on and on. What would your life be without Lennon & McCartney? Kind of like a life without Shakespeare. Maybe even worse. After all, you can’t dance to Titus Andronicus. We tend to discount the geniuses amongst us. It’s said that true genius is never appreciated in its own time. But Lennon & McCartney are either once-in-a-generation geniuses – or space aliens dropped into working class Liverpool during World War Two.

A couple observations about this list:

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is not on the list because his big scientific breakthrough (E = mc2) led to the atomic bomb. That may not be fair, but consequences matter. Nobody else on this list came up with anything that directly cost lives. UPDATE: The wise and fair minded Jim McCutchen reminds me that Einstein is NOT the only one on this list to have his work misused to the detriment of mankind. Jim is correct. Now, I am keeping Einstein off the list simply because I am not a big fan of math and because his hair looks too much like Mark Twain’s.

Of the 15 geniuses on this list, more than half were severely punished for their gifts to humanity: two were executed (Socrates and Jesus), four were assassinated (Lincoln, Gandhi, King and Lennon), and two were persecuted by religious fundamentalists (Galileo and Darwin).

Who would you put on this list?

Who would you take off this list?

And where do you stand on the whole Chariots of the Gods thing?

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