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The Insightful Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows

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Charlie Gillingham c. 2016

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Charlie Gillingham, a bright guy born in Torrance, California, graduates from The University of California -Berkeley with a degree in Artificial Intelligence and is quickly hired as a software engineer. He makes a good living for nearly a decade. If not for the fact that Charlie also happens to be a very talented musician and songwriter, it could have been a sweet, but predictable ending to a pleasant story. But, when an opportunity materialized in 1990 to join and help launch an emerging group, Counting Crows, Charlie Gillingham took a sharp right turn and added “Keyboardist and Multi Instrumentalist” to his resume.

“We started around Berkeley, CA, Adam Duritz, David Bryson and I,” Charlie said. Lead singer, Adam Duritz and guitarist David Bryson had been playing together in coffeehouses in and around San Francisco, CA. The name they were using, Counting Crows, was derived from a nursery rhyme, One for Sorrow, about the superstitious counting of magpies,  members of the crow family. “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told.” As members were added,  they decided that Counting Crows remain the name of the band.

Gillingham employs an impressive array of musical instruments. Whether he’s working with the Hammond B3, the piano accordion, mellotron, guitar, clarinet or oboe, he says, “I’m usually looking for an atmosphere, a texture….and lean more towards playing an instrument that I can improvise on and play really well…..piano is great…. You can make a “Whirly” (Wurlitzer’s early electronic piano) sound magical because it’s got a lot of effects on it. But it’s kind of more interesting to do that with your hands.…I’ve been playing a Hammond B3 for a long time, and I know how to do a lot of different things with it. I know how to shape the sound, how to move it somewhere, make it go. My hands know what to do.”

With regard to the piano accordion, Charlie says,  “It’s been around….I like playing accordion because I like the way it makes you feel. I don’t play it like an accordion player. I play it like I play it…. I use it as an instrument way more than I would ever use it as a hammer—as a rich, emotional pad, like the way someone might use strings.”

Charlie explains about the creative process of songwriting with members of Counting Crows, “So Adam is the writer. All our songs are lyric-driven….All of us, everybody in the band, are musicians in various ways by bringing home chord changes, coming up with new parts, moving things around. There are a few songs of ours that grew almost entirely out of recordings that I made….Then again, the lyrics and melody are all Adam. I think at the end of the day, a song is a lyric and a melody. The chord changes and the instrumental stuff that we do help that melody and the lyrics go.”

In 2004, Gillingham’s song,  “Accidently in Love” along with his co-writers, Adam Duritz, Jim Bogios, David Immergluck, Matt Malley, David Bryson and Dan Vickrey,  was nominated for The Academy Award for Best Original Song,  used in the film, Shrek 2.

Charlie Gillingham shares his insight into the process of using an instrument in his work “..there’s a learning curve in an instrument… If you’re just scrolling through the sounds trying to find something good, you’re not going to find something that can play the subtlety…..You can make an instrument sound great by the way you play it, or you can make it sound great by the way you orchestrate it. There are two sides to it.….You could find something to carry a melody, which might be what you want. If you just want to carry a melody, that’s fine…..But if you want to shape the song, shape the mood of the song, make it feel like something, you have to play well.”

He adds, “….there’s two sides to playing….say you have a Stradivarius violin, you have the best violin in the world. But it’s how you play it. It’s a big thing.  It’s just the nature of electronic software instruments that you don’t get a lot of practice time. You can’t practice some sampler. But there are people who learn certain samplers and synthesizers really well.”

And with the wisdom of a long time professional musician, Charlie Gillingham sums up his experience with this insight, ” It’s not what you know. It’s how much you practice.”

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All quotes from “A Conversation with Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows”, Reverb, Published Aug 17, 2016 by Matt Biancardi

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The Extraordinary Dick Contino

 

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Dick Contino

I have sad news to share about the great Dick Contino. We are sorry to learn that he has passed away,  April 19, 2017. In honor of his memory, I am sending you this post that I wrote previously Rest in peace, Soldier.

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Memorial Day is a day of remembering and honoring, not only the fallen soldiers, but also those who have served America. Among the ranks of musicians, one of our own, Dick Contino, stands out as a veteran of the Korean War and as a brilliant accordionist and entertainer.

Born in Fresno, California in 1930, Dick Contino was a precocious child with parents dedicated to his success, from the beginning. The Continos (his father was an accomplished accordionist), recognized their son’s talent from an early age and for  years, drove him 180 miles each week for accordion lessons in San Francisco. His first break in show business came in 1946, a year before Dick graduated from High School. He won the prestigious Horace Heidt/Philip Morris talent competition in Fresno which was broadcast on national radio.

Dick also won first place in talent contests in Los Angeles, Omaha, Des Moines, Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and New York City. When he graduated from high school in 1947, he enrolled at Fresno State College. Always feeling the pressure of his intense ambition and drive to be a successful entertainer,  Dick chose to leave college and dedicate himself to a career as an accordionist. Dick Contino was successful…. very successful.  He toured with the Horace Heidt Orchestra and was billed as”The World’s Greatest Accordionist”. Barely out of high school, Contino reported earnings of four thousand dollars per week, an enormous sum for a musician, just before his career was interrupted by military service.

Part I:

Because he was quite handsome, when he returned from his tour of duty, Dick Contino gained entry into the film industry in Hollywood. He starred in some acting roles, without his accordion. But it was his accordion playing that kept him as a returning star, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show for a record of forty-eight appearances.

Part II:

Dick Contino continuex to perform regularly throughout the United States. His repertoire was eclectic, ranging from Italian songs such as “Come Back to Sorrento” and “Arrivederci Roma” to his signature song, “Lady of Spain” and standards like “Swinging on a Star”.

On the accordion, following in the footsteps of his legendary father, is son Pete Contino and his blues band, The Pete Contino Band. Growing up, Pete never aspired to a career in music. But when his Mother passed away (actress Leigh Snowden), he went on the road with his father to learn the music business. It was therapeutic and it kept his mind busy. Through his involvement with his father’s band, he discovered a love for music and for the accordion. Now that he is a professional with his own band, Pete has observed, in an interview with Michael Limnios, “To use an old cliché, (my Dad’s) are very big shoes to fill. His fans are hardcore, and rightfully so. My father made a huge niche with the accordion. The expectations are sometimes high, but I never try to compete with my father’s reputation.” He states, ” A lot of his fans were funny and interesting and very devoted. Sometimes a fan would be uncomfortable to go up to my dad and they would start asking me questions about him. I would finally grab whoever it was and drag them over to meet him. He’s very friendly, my dad, very approachable.”

Pete Contino

Pete Contino

 http://www.petecontino.com

 


Life in Parodies: Weird Al Yankovic

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“Weird Al” Yankovic

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana It began with a knock on the door and a promise of success. In mid-century America, many parents thought that if their child studied a musical instrument, he or she would be more intelligent, be a better student and therefore be more productive in life. So, the common practice all over America through the nineteen fifties and into the nineteen sixties was for local music studios to go door to door and sign children up for music lessons at the studio. Band and orchestra music lessons were always given through the schools,  and studios would compete for the coveted contracts to supply students with instruments. So, door to door salesmen were commissioned to offer lessons as an introduction to other instruments, such as the accordion, the piano and the guitar, with rental or purchase of an instrument through the music studio.

In the door to door method of marketing, the guitar was the more frequent choice because it was the easiest for a family to afford. The cost for the guitar was twenty-five dollars or less. With a few lessons to learn some basic chords, a boy could make inroads into the worlds of rock ‘n’ roll, country-western music, jazz and–yikes!–the blues! So, for those who were fearful of such outcomes or especially if their child was a girl, the choice was usually between the accordion and the piano. Although relatively expensive, the accordion started out as a popular choice. It was smaller and portable and, unlike a piano, it could be carried to a basement, or another room in a small home for practice sessions. That offered the rest of the family a chance to watch television in peace (preferably in the dark, just like at the movies). It was seen as a “win-win” situation for everyone.

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As in almost all direct sales, salesmen started with lists of names and addresses obtained from telephone books, a recent census, directories and other sources through subscriptions. They determined where to focus their sales efforts, and pursued their target market systematically. For example, if the family’s name came from a church directory, the more likely the instrument of choice would be the piano, and sometimes the studio could move a student to the organ, as well. If the family had an Italian, Polish or Eastern European name, perhaps another instrument would be a better fit. So, for a Lynwood, California family named Yankovic, a name already associated with the accordion (Frankie Yankovic), it was highly probable that a child in that household, in time, would be a student of the accordion.

Young Alfred with accordion

Alfred Yankovic c. 1970

Alfred was a very smart boy. He was enrolled in elementary school one year early and was found to be gifted and allowed to skip the second grade. One day, when Alfred was six or seven years old and already a third grader, a salesman came to their door and impressed upon Nick and Mary Yankovic that their only child should take music lessons at the studio. His parents thought it would be a good idea for Alfred to learn to play the accordion because, just as it had for the unrelated Frankie Yankovic, it might lead to something for their boy. But, neither one could have foreseen that their son would seize this opportunity to completely reinvent Alfred Yankovic as “Weird Al” and would become an enormously successful entertainer, music satirist, songwriter, record producer, actor, music video director, film producer , and children’s book author.

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Yankovic made his first career decision when he decided to write a song about his family car, a Plymouth Belvedere and called it “Belvedere Cruisin'”. He taped the song, and gave the crudely recorded demo to his idol, Dr. Demento(Barry Hansen), when the radio show host visited Lynwood High School in Alfred’s senior year. Hansen liked it and played it on the air during The Dr. Demento Show. It turned out to be a breakthrough move for Alfred.

Young Al III

Alfred graduated at age 16 as Valedictorian of the class of 1975 at Lynwood High School in Lynwood, California. But, during his sophomore year at California Polytechnic Institute, Alfred’s professional career actually began when he promoted himself as “Weird Al” while he was a student disc jockey. He worked Wednesdays from midnight until three in the morning on campus radio station, KCPR. He also performed at local coffee houses in the area and remembers, “It sort of was like amateur music night and a lot of people were like wannabee Dan Fogelbergs. They would get up on stage with their acoustic guitar and do these lovely ballads. And I would get up with my accordion and play the theme from 2001 (A Space Oddessey)….people were kind of shocked that I would be disrupting their mellow Thursday night folk fest.” In 1978, his recording (as Alfred Yankovic), “Take Me Down” appeared on the Slo Grown LP, as a benefit for the Economic Opportunity Commission of San Luis Obispo County. It was a mockery of landmarks in the county.

The next year, just before his senior year in college, “Weird Al” did a parody of a then-current song that was high on the charts in 1979, “My Sharona” by The Knack. Al dashed across the hall from the campus radio station with his accordion. He used the hard bathroom walls to achieve an echo chamber effect and recorded a parody of the song, named “My Bologna”.  Fortunately, Al was able to record it using a cord found that happened to be long enough to reach all the way from the men’s room to the tape deck in the radio station.

In 1980, Al was invited as a guest on the Dr. Demento Show, where he recorded, live on air, “Another One Rides the Bus”, a parody he had written based on “Another One Bites the Dust”, by Queen. Al met drummer, Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, while rehearsing the song for the show. Jon stepped in to give him a steady beat, banging on Al’s accordion case to keep time. They rehearsed the song only a few times before the show began. Al played his accordion on the show and on the recording, while Schwartz banged on the accordion case. TK Records released it as a single, just as the company was going bankrupt. No royalties were received from the initial release, but it was a hit and was eventually performed on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder in 1981.

One thing led to another. Al  reached out, again to Dr. Demento, and  sent “My Bologna”. He played it and received positive response from listeners. Doug Feiger, lead singer of The Knack, heard the parody and loved it. After a show they performed at his college, Al met The Knack and introduced himself as the creator of “My Bologna”. Feiger, suggested to Rupert Perry, who was Vice President of Capitol Records, that it be released as a single. “My Bologna” was released and on its flip side was “School Cafeteria” and along with that release, Al received a six month recording contract. In spite of all of the distraction, Al Yankovic graduated, at age twenty, with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture. But, he wanted to see if he could make a living doing parodies of current songs. Al recalls, “If it hadn’t been for Dr. Demento, I would have a real job right now.”

As Al Yankovic’s career took off in the 1980’s, there were recording artists who loved his work and allowed him to parody them. But, even now, there are those who do not allow him to lampoon them because they don’t want another version of their work to exist or because they think a parody may damage their reputation. Yankovic always requests permission from the artist that he intends to satirize. Al didn’t think that Michael Jackson would agree to it, but was surprised that MJ thought the parody of his song “Beat It”, called “Eat It” was funny. So MJ became a fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic.

In fact, Michael Jackson thought so highly of him, that MJ allowed WAY to use the set from his music video “Badder” for Al Yankovic’s video, “Fat”, a parody of the hit song, “Bad”. It won the Grammy Award for Best Concept Music Video of 1988.

However, MJ would not allow him to parody “Black or White” because he reasoned that permitting it  would change the impact of the song’s message which was meaningful and sensitive, and he felt strongly that he needed to protect it. Although never recorded,  sometimes “Weird Al” Yankovic does “Snack All Night”, his parody  of “Black or White”, at live shows.

Unlike Michael Jackson, the late Prince would never allow Yankovic to parody his songs, although he had been approached many times throughout the years to do so. Prince even went so far as to request, in writing via a telegram, that Yankovic make no eye contact with him  at the American Music Awards, (Yankovic was one of several at the event to be notified).

“Like a Surgeon”was based on Madonna‘s signature hit, “Like a Virgin” and was the only time that “Weird Al” took an artist up on doing a parody of their own song. She mused about it and confided to a mutual friend of Yankovic’s manager, who passed the information on to Al Yankovic.

“White and Nerdy”, (from Straight Outta Lynwood, released 2006) a parody of a rap song, “Ridin'” by Chamillionaire, was the only Top 100 hit to make the Top 10 by “Weird Al” Yankovic, peaking at #9 and with more than six million views on YouTube.

Since Al began his career in the late 1970’s, he has sold more than 12 million albums, recorded more than 150 parody and original songs and has performed more than 1000 live shows. He was nominated for a Grammy eleven times, and won four Grammy Awards, four Gold Records and six Platinum Records in the U. S. A.

Al Yankovic’s latest album is Mandatory Fun (2014). It became his first number one album during its debut week. In addition to recording his albums, “Weird Al” wrote and starred in the film UHF(1989) and The Weird Al Show(1997). He has also written two children’s books When I Grow Up and My New Teacher and Me.

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“Weird Al” Yankovic


The Remarkable Garth Hudson of The Band


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Garth Hudson (Photo by Barrie Wenzel)

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana  Garth Hudson and members of The Band were contemporaries of both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan  and came of age during a magical era in American music. Tired of war and depleted of creative energy, America, after World War II became highly focused on regenerating and moving forward. It was a time of reinvention and rebirth. This new direction was expressed in a type of music that was blues infused, with strong hints of gospel and rooted in rural America. It was, at times, biting, raw and edgy. Garth Hudson, along with The Band, Elvis, Dylan and others, represented the first wave of Post World War musicians and songwriters who produced music deeply etched in the Americana musical memory, and music that will endure long after the magic fades.

Garth Hudson was born in Windsor, Ontario, in 1937. When he was three years old, the Hudson family moved to London, Ontario. His father was an entomologist, and an inspector for the Canadian government. Because he had a strong interest in science when he was young, Garth thought he would work, as his father had, as an agricultural researcher. However, his father was also a musician, and his mother played the accordion and the piano, and even his uncles were in a band. So, it was their family’s tradition that Garth would begin to study music while still quite young. After he had acquired a knowledge base of classical piano and music theory, Garth began to study the accordion as well as other instruments, and majored in music at Western Ontario University. His primary instruments were piano, organ, accordion, and tenor and soprano saxophones.

Any ambition as a classical musician never materialized because Garth always had trouble with memorization. He also didn’t like to practice, so he leaned heavily on improvisation, developing his own method of playing by ear. Garth saw music in shapes and forms, and was encouraged to do so by his high school music teacher, who had a band and asked him to transcribe scores for him. While in school, in 1952, Garth formed his first band, The Three Blisters. The next year, the group called themselves The Four Quarters, with Garth on the accordion. From that experience, another group evolved. He said, “We called ourselves the Silhouettes.We played some shows around town, and then I left with some of those people and went to the Windsor/Detroit area.We hooked up with a young singer, Paul London and the Capers.We worked with Armand Balladian, a promotion man who worked with music distributors and merchants and also promoted records to disc jockeys in the Detroit area. We had two records he promoted, and one was number eight on the local listing. We did teen hops and various other things.”  With the Capers, Garth played the organ and saxophone. There were groups in Detroit that used the organ. “I remember going to the store and trying (a Lowry organ) out and it had certain things that the Hammond wouldn’t do. We bought a Lowry organ,which nobody else was using” From his use of the Lowry organ, Hudson began to develop a unique, gospel style sound, and a very different technique of playing the instrument.

In 1961 Garth Hudson joined an Arkansas rockabilly group, Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks. Hawkins’ band had deserted him, choosing not to relocate with him to Ontario from the States. Levon Helm, also from Arkansas, decided to remain as the drummer for the group. Vacancies were filled by Canadians, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel. When Garth Hudson joined the Hawks, he played the saxophone and Hawkins paid him an extra ten dollars per week to teach the other band members to read and write music. By 1963, The Hawks had split from Hawkins, and tried to change the band’s name to Levon and the Hawks, then The Canadian Squires. Eventually, they returned to the name, The Hawks.

In 1966,The Hawks were introduced to Bob Dylan who recruited them to accompany him on a tour of Europe. At the conclusion of the long tour, the band remained on a salary paid by Dylan, and bought and lived in a pink house near Woodstock, N.Y. At that time, Dylan chose to drop out of public life, and began writing and recording with The Hawks.  Recording sessions were sold by bootleggers, and many of the recordings were released, later on as The Basement Tapes. The Hawks became known as The Band and continued to record with Bob Dylan throughout the tumultuous  late 1960’s, as  the Viet Nam War raged and Dylan went electric. The Band released their debut album, Music From Big Pink, in 1968. It was their association with Woodstock, N.Y. and also the fact that Bob Dylan was set to headline that event, that the geographic location was chosen for the site of the festival that would rock the world.

By the 1970’s, the Viet Nam War came to an end and The Band felt a need to go their separate ways. The event was documented by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz,  filmed in 1976. It marked the end of an era. Garth Hudson spent the next 16 years living and working in California on film soundtracks and participating in the music scene. In 1978, a fire leveled his home that he shared with his wife, Maud, and the misfortune had a profound impact on them. Eventually, in 1991, the couple moved from California to the same area of New York State where he had resided during the Big Pink era. Garth recorded three more albums with The Band in the early 1990’s. Sadly, of the original five members of The Band, only two are living: Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson.

Today,Garth is heavily engrossed in experimental forms of music, and released an album entitled, The Sea to the North. Constantly working, Garth Hudson is a much in-demand and respected session musician, recording and performing with a diverse collection of artists, and amassing an enormous catalog of work. In much of that work, he has involved the accordion. Garth Hudson produces, composes, arranges, records and performs with his wife and his eleven piece orchestra and teaches master classes, when time permits. “I don’t care if I never play for a Jazz audience.” He says,”the people I am concerned about approaching are out there, in middle America.”

“You must, after the age of 33, continue to do a certain type of work or else go into the shoe business, forget music or it will turn into hatred, or else reiteration, redundancy and in many cases, death.You have to find a type of work that you make yourself do that is not drug inspired.” Garth Hudson

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Garth Hudson quotes from The Woodstock Times, Vol. 14, no. 13, March 28, 1985. 

by Ruth Albert Spencer