On November 13th, 2017, I presented a PowerPoint on the history of West Coast music called How The West Was Smooth. This was part of a Music Matters Appreciation Lecture Series sponsored by 103.3 Asheville FM. The amazing poster above was designed by an Asheville FM volunteer named Pia.
The video was initially posted on YouTube but has been offline for a while. So I uploaded it myself. You can access it via the link below:
Here is the press release which promoted the presentation:
Music Matters is a series of bimonthly appreciation lectures given by Asheville FM DJs, volunteers, and affiliates. Join us for the next presentation in this series, “How the West Was Smooth: The History of West Coast Music.” The West Coast sound is one of the most appreciated genres of music worldwide today. Artists such as Toto, Boz Scaggs, Fleetwood Mac, Ambrosia, Pablo Cruise, Bill LaBounty, and Steely Dan have influenced a new generation of NuCoast bands worldwide from Scandinavia, France, England, New Zealand, Brazil, and many other countries. From 6 – 8pm on Monday, November 13th, Erik Mattox, host of Asheville FM’s The WestCoast Breeze, will give you the lowdown on how the 60s folk and country rock scene in the Canyon transitioned into the smooth sounds of West Coast music of the late 70s and early 80s.
When Quincy Jones started recording The Dude in 1980, he was coming off of a monster collaboration with Michael Jackson. He had just helped MJ rebrand himself as an adult superstar, and the world was ready to hear Quincy’s next project. Quincy split the vocals on The Dude between jazz vocalist Patti Austin and a new singer called James Ingram and became one of the definitive early 80s Westcoast albums. And the world was introduced to James’ gruff yet warm tenor a sound that could elevate a simple ballad into a world-weary plea with his inimitable upper register howl.
Just Once & One Hundred Ways would be Quincy’s first Top 20 pop hits after an up-to-then 30-year career in music. Ingram would go on to create some of the best crafted WestCoast Soul of the 80s and early 90s working with some of the best studio musicians of the day [Steve Lukather, Greg Phillenganes, Michale Boddicker, Nathan East, Paulinho DaCosta] all the while being branded as the consummate singing partner. In fact, out of his 8 Top 40 hits, only one them was credited to him as a solo singer, 1990’s #1 I Don’t Have The Heart, also producer Thom Bell’s last notable pop hit.
James had hits as a featured guest with Quincy Jones as well as duets with Patti Austin (Baby Come To Me, #1), Michael McDonald (Yah Mo B There, #19), and Linda Ronstadt (Somewhere Out There, #2). He also had a hit as a trio with Kenny Rogers & Kim Carnes (What About Me?, #15) and a quartet with Barry White, Al. B Sure & El Debarge (The Secret Garden, #31). He also sang duets with Anita Baker & Dolly Parton and teamed up with John Tesh and The Boston Pops Orchestra. He was nominated for 14 Grammys winning 2 and co-wrote P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing) on Thriller, which hopefully kept him and his family comfortable throughout his life.
James left us on January 29th, 2019, but he lives on through his unique one-of-a-kind howl.
Folk pop from the late 60/early 70s has been a very enduring and influential genre of music all around the world. Read my latest article for Culture Sonar in which I draw the parallel from the music of 70s hitmakers America to the UK duo, Zervas & Pepper.
Full disclaimer – I love Toto, and I love the song Africa, ever since it was released 35 years ago. But I am very intrigued and fascinated by how this song has grown in popularity to the point that it was in the Top 20 of the Pop Digital Sales Chart this Summer. Why Africa? Why Toto? Why now? [You can read the story of how the song, Africa, was created here.]
My initial feeling is who cares; people like it and so do I. People in the US have finally come around on Toto and have begun to appreciate their work, wanting to see them live – welcome to the party – even though they haven’t stopped working in during their 40 years together and have been loved for decades by the Europeans.
Africa was recently covered by Weezer, in what I feel is a weak version, but it did reach #1 on the alternative charts. But you can’t tell me that 2018 Weezer has enough cred to make Toto seem cool. If anything, their cover made more people want to hear the original.
But let’s try to tackle my original question – why the hell am I playing Africa at a wedding? Most folks have roughly 2-3 hours tops to have any danceable songs they want to be played. Yet I can segue from Timberlake or Lil Jon right into that opening samba shuffle of Jeff Porcaro’s and people lose their minds. Friends and family gather into a tight little pod, gently sway, and as Jeff hits that drum fill before the chorus, they all raise their hands and scream to the heavens, “gonna take a lot to drag me away from you….” or whatever their version may be. It’s pretty cool to watch, a communal experience inside of one of life’s most important personal events. And isn’t that what’s cool about music, its ability to bring us together and make us feel happy? Maybe that sounds cliche or a bit overwrought, but as popular music rarely connects all age groups, genders, races, economic groups, etc., it can be exceptionally comforting to know that in 2018 an almost-40-year-old song has the power to do that.
So how could I ever imagine that a song that I first enjoyed as an eleven-year-old would give me a new joy as a forty-plus-year-old? Maybe trying to answer the question of why its popular is just wasting the energy I could instead spend on pulling out my copy of Toto IV and playing the last song on Side 2.
When you sell as many albums and have as much success as the Eagles did in the mid to late 70s, everyone’s gonna want a piece of you. Here’s a compilation of Top 40 songs that feature backing vocals by one or more of the Eagles:
While some pop rock artists in the 70s tried to be the next Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan is the rare mainstream artist to have very few, if any, imitators. Their style of jazz infused rock with precise production and tight performance has no doubt influenced many yet yielded few peers. Maybe it just took us some time to catch up to them and their innovative sound because in the last few decades I have heard more bands especially from other countries that have heavily added some of that Steely spice into their cookbook.
One of my favorite NuCoast bands is a Canadian quartet from Toronto called Monkey House. Formed in the early 90s by singer/songwriter Don Breithaupt, who also wrote one of the Continuum 33 1/3 Series of books on Steely Dan’s Aja, Monkey House have released 6 albums with each one sounding more and more like a lost Fagen and Becker session. Their last release in 2016, Left, featuring past and current Steely collaborators, Michael Leonhart and Jay Graydon, reached #24 on the Billboard Jazz albums chart, but that may be misleading as tracks like My Top 10 List and the Purdie Shuffle-esque It’s Already Dark In New Yorklean more towards WestCoast jazz rock.
The track I feel Steely fans may enjoy the most is the tune, It Works For Me off of the Left album. If you ever wondered what the Dan would have sounded like in 2000 had they used the Pretzel Logic era rather than the Gaucho era as a jumping off point, this would be it. It Works For Me is a concise pop song that still leaves room to breathe, featuring horn riffs that are reminiscent of My Old School, lead guitar by Reelin In the Years soloist, Elliott Randall and mu chords galore, utilizes the best of Steely’s assets, transforming them into a contemporary pop arrangement that should have received wider recognition. Lyrically reflecting a world where thinking for yourself means taking a stand against those who always tell you what to do, Don B’s vocal stylings come off a little smoother than Don F’s but the words that are sung are still reminiscent of the latter’s wry humor and unique outlook.
Monkey House is planning their seventh release late this year, so get in on these guys before they break out.
When the Doobie Brothers had their second #1 hit in early 1979, the Grammy-winning What A Fool Believes, it was a career high for the band, but also represented the pinnacle of a decade long struggle for success by its singer and co-writer, Michael McDonald. The song made him a star, with his voice his most recognizable asset. So powerful and popular was that song that other artists from various genres tried to capture some of that Fool magic, with some succeeding and some not.
Here’s a short clip of those who tried to reason away ripping off the Doobies….