Anyone who is in into music probably has their favorite Rock ‘N’ Roll stories, some based in fact and others steeped in myth. Who can forget the legend of Van Halen and the brown M&Ms? These kind of tales are part of the fun of rock music, a genre littered with larger-than-life personalities and tall tales.
What is it that is so mesmerizing about popular music? The pull of a good song on the human spirit is a strong one. Music has the power to inspire, to breathe life into a person or community in a way no other medium can. That is why these stories you’re about to hear are so powerful.
10. Anger Fuels New York’s Song
Who would have thought Robert De Niro helped spur the creation of a famous anthem for the Big Apple?
Songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb, the guys behind the musical Cabaret, had worked hard to craft songs for the movie New York, New York, tunes that director Martin Scorcese and actress Liza Minnelli approved of. But Robert De Niro wasn’t so happy about what he was hearing, and told the songwriting duo he thought the title song was weak and asked them if they would try writing it again. They were insulted but agreed to do another tune, churning out a new song in about an hour, fueled by their anger at the insolence of the actor. It sure worked out in their favor. The movie flopped, but the new song turned out to be the biggest hit of their career and the unofficial anthem of New York, helped a little by Frank Sinatra’s rousing rendition.
9. Franz Liszt, Rock Star
Before The Beatles and boy bands captured the hearts of young women around the globe, the world had Franz Liszt, piano virtuoso and superstar of classical music. His looks were striking, his personality charming, and his playing intense and violently romantic. Young women mobbed the stage and swooned as Liszt played, trying to snip off pieces of his long, beautiful hair and stylish clothes to keep as souvenirs as they screamed their adoration. Hands grabbed at anything he had touched, even empty glasses of his or cigar butts he’d finished.
It was a madness that made one journalist coin the term “Lisztomania” to describe it because nothing else to that degree had ever happened before. From 1839 – 1847, Liszt played more than a 1000 dates in 150 cities and was the first to perform memorized pieces with the piano sideways, which apparently incensed the crowd. He was the first rock star, an anomaly of his time, and would later on would even become a religious mystic.
8. Castrated for Fame and Fortune
Commitment to your craft is admirable, but a group of men back in the golden age of opera took that term to its extremes. These men were called the castrati and were recruited at a young age for the opportunity to tour the world and amaze audiences with their strong, high-pitched voices.
There was a catch, though. The angelic voices that the recruiters demanded were only possible by neutering the young men before puberty had set in, suspending their voice in purity for a lifetime. The practice began around the 1500s and would soon become all the rage, with opera audiences demanding the sound be featured in most all of the operas. Thankfully, this barbaric custom would go out of fashion in the late 1700s.
7. One of Arlo Guthrie’s Finer Beers
Packing up his guitars after a gig in Chicago, folksinger Arlo Guthrie was pulled aside by a young man named Steve Goodman and asked whether he would listen to one of his songs. It was 2 in the morning, not prime time to ask someone for a favor. But Arlo, tired and slightly annoyed, agreed to it if Goodman would buy him a beer.
The boy soon set off on a song called “The City of New Orleans”, which would go on to become a country classic and Grammy-winning number-one hit for Willie Nelson. It was written about the train from Chicago to New Orleans that Goodman often rode, with a haunting melody that has captured audiences ever since, enchanted by that famous line “Good morning, America, how are you?” Johnny Cash even called it “the best damn train song ever written.” Not a bad time for a beer, huh?
6. Sing Your Way Out of Prison
If Walter Boyd could do it, then maybe more inmates should take to song to win the chance at freedom. It seems unlikely, but back in 1924 the guitar wizard was 6 years into a 30 year sentence for murder when he was invited to play for the visiting governor after supper. He jumped at the chance, and belted out a song written specially for the visit with lyrics pleading for a chance at pardon or parole. Governor Pat Morriss Neff was crazy about the song, and soon promised the prisoner a pardon, which was delivered on the last day of his term.
Out of prison, Boyd, whose real name was Huddie Ledbetter, would soon gain international fame as the folk and blues musician “Leadbelly”, eventually performing with Woody Guthrie and writing the hit song “Goodnight, Irene.” His career is a testament to the power of song.