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An eclectic mix of aural achievements, headlined by Judy Garland (“Over the Rainbow”), Barbra Streisand (“People”), N.W.A (Straight Outta Compton) and Vin Scully (the last Dodgers-Giants game at New York’s Polo Grounds), have made it into the National Recording Registry this year.
Also included among the 25 treasures to be preserved by the Library of Congress: the albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars from David Bowie, Remain in Light from Talking Heads and Wanted: Live in Concert from Richard Pryor; the first episode of NPR’s All Things Considered; the original cast album of Broadway’s The Wiz; and unforgettable songs from Wilson Pickett, Don McLean, Big Mama Thornton, Marty Robbins, Melba Moore, Judy Collins, Renee Fleming, Sonny Rollins and Sister Sledge.
Each year, the Librarian of Congress picks 25 titles that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and at least 10 years old. This latest batch spans the years 1888 to 1997 and brings the total number of titles in the Registry to 475.
“With few exceptions, American music is the whole of popular music,” McLean said in a statement after learning that his sweeping 1971 ballad, “American Pie,” was enshrined. “We have done it all, written the greatest songs and produced the greatest artists. I am so proud to be a part of this creative effort.”
Streisand, meanwhile, called it “humbling and gratifying” that her 1964 hit “People,” from composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, had been selected.
“This is the prestigious treasure house in which American art is archived and acknowledged as part of the flow of our nation’s culture,” she said. “I believe ‘People’ touched our common desire to relate to others with love and caring, and I’ve always tried to express this in my renditions of this magical song.”
Here’s a look at the inductees in chronological order, with descriptions supplied by the Library of Congress:
The 1888 London cylinder recordings of Col. George Gouraud (1888)
Thomas Edison debuted his “perfected” wax-cylinder phonograph in the summer of 1888, rendering obsolete his 1877 tinfoil model and preventing a coup against his “favorite invention” by Bell and Tainter’s insurgent Graphophone. The first phonograph to leave Edison’s factory was sent to his friend and agent, Civil War hero Col. George Gouraud, an American living in London, who had a knack for promoting and marketing new technologies. In the second half of 1888, Gouraud marketed the machine by hosting recording demonstrations with celebrity guests and, perhaps accidentally, preserved for posterity the voices of prominent poets, scientists, musicians and politicians, including future Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan. The first of these recordings was the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace. Hugh DeCoursey Hamilton, who worked for Gouraud and Edison, captured a 4,000-voice chorus performing “Israel in Egypt” from the press balcony 100 yards away. Gouraud also recorded his friends, family and business partners.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (singles), Manhattan Harmony Four (1923); Melba Moore and Friends (1990)
With text written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1905, the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has served as the “Black National Anthem” since its adoption by the NAACP in 1919. As with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” no single recording captures the hymn’s essence or its overall meaning to Americans. Therefore, the registry recognizes two recordings: the 1923 version by the Manhattan Harmony Four, one of the last discs issued by the short-lived Black Swan Co. — a pioneering African-American-owned record label based in Harlem — and a modernized 1990 version headed by Moore. Moore sought to restore the standing of the song among young African-Americans. Among the many participants in her latter, all-star recording were Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick and Bobby Brown. The resulting single, which benefited charity, made headlines at the time and helped to raise public awareness of the Johnsons‘ anthem.
“Puttin‘ on the Ritz,” Harry Richman (1929)
Irving Berlin’s timeless “Puttin‘ on the Ritz” has been an enduring hit since its introduction in the 1930 film of the same title. This is remarkable given the rhythmic complexities of the first four measures. Musicologist and author Alec Wilder wrote in “American Popular Song,” “It is the most complex and provocative I have ever come upon.” The song was introduced in the film by Richman (1895-1972), a song-and-dance man and star of radio, movies and nightclubs. Although Richman is little remembered today, his top-hatted presence, with cane and tails, set the tone and stage for this swanky tune. His enduring features — a slight lisp and a tendency to over-pronounce the syllable “oo” — have been parodied in animated cartoons and by musician/comedian Spike Jones. On this recording, Richman is accompanied by Earl Burtnett and his Los Angeles Hotel Biltmore Orchestra, who supply sophisticated accompaniment. Since its debut, the song has become a favorite on television and in movies, most memorably in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. International artist Taco also turned it into a Top 10 hit for the MTV generation.
“Over the Rainbow,” Judy Garland (1939)
One of the best-known ballads of all time, “Over the Rainbow,” from the classic American fantasy film The Wizard of Oz, expresses a poignant yearning for escape as sung by Garland, the film’s young star. “Over the Rainbow” became an anthem for Garland, a song she cherished throughout her life as her favorite. “It represents everyone’s wondering why things can’t be a little better,” she said in a 1967 interview, two years before her death. Lyricist E.Y. “Yip” Harburg settled on the image of the rainbow as the “only colorful thing that she’s [the Garland character] ever seen in her life,” he recalled, and created a symbol of hope that also became a reason for the film’s creators to shift its cinematography from sepia tones to Technicolor once Dorothy landed in the Land of Oz. Garland credited the song’s “childlike, wistful quality” to its composer, Harold Arlen. The song won an Academy Award, and the 1939 Decca recording by Garland — released a few weeks after the film’s premiere — with accompaniment by Victor Young and his orchestra, became a best-seller.
“I’ll Fly Away,” The Chuck Wagon Gang (1948)
The Chuck Wagon Gang — comprised of D.P. “Dad” Carter, his son and two daughters — was already one of the nation’s most beloved country-gospel groups when its members recorded the first version of Albert E. Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away,” which quickly became a standard. The family group’s strong four-part singing came out of the southern shape-note tradition, though the addition of Jim Carter’s guitar gave their sound a special drive at a time when most other gospel groups favored piano. The original Chuck Wagon Gang stayed with the group into the 1970s, when new participants began rotating in and out of the ensemble. The group continues to this day, now led by Shaye Smith, granddaughter of original alto Anna Carter.
“Hound Dog,” Big Mama Thornton (1953)
The original version of “Hound Dog” brought together several key figures from the world of early 1950s rhythm and blues. Bandleader Johnny Otis invited composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, both teenagers, to his house to hear Willie Mae Thornton, a physically imposing singer with a powerful voice. Big Mama inspired them to write “Hound Dog” in a matter of minutes. The song was recorded on Aug. 13, 1952, with Otis on drums and two members of his band providing backup: guitarist Pete Lewis and bassist Mario Delagarde. It would be six months before the disc was released, but the unique mix of styles, rhythms and rhymes made “Hound Dog” a major hit and an enduring classic. “Hound Dog” became a standard of the rock ‘n’ roll era. The song went on to be recorded by many artists, including Elvis Presley.
Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins (1956)
To saxophonist Rollins, the recording of “Saxophone Colossus” didn’t seem that different from any of his previous albums. To jazz fans, however, it would become, along with Way Out West, one of the defining albums of Rollins’ career. With only five tracks and less than 40 minutes, the album may appear slight, but the quality of the music has earned it a place of honor among jazz fans for more than 60 years. Solidly anchored by a rhythm section of drummer Max Roach, bassist Doug Watkins and pianist Tommy Flanagan, Rollins is able to solo with power, grace and humor. On the calypso-based “St. Thomas,” inspired by a melody his mother sang to him, Rollins is at first playful, then harder-edged as the tune segues from a calypso rhythm to a standard jazz beat. “St. Thomas” went on to become not only one of Rollins’ signature tunes but a jazz standard, with dozens of recorded versions.
Brooklyn Dodgers vs. New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, announced by Vin Scully (Sept. 8, 1957)
When two of baseball’s most storied franchises faced each other for the last time in one of the game’s most storied venues, there seemed to be little at stake, as neither team was a pennant contender that year. The Dodgers had announced they would leave for Los Angeles at the end of the season, and the Giants were headed to San Francisco. Brooklyn announcer Scully, then in the early years of his more than six decades at the microphone, called the game in his inimitable style and wove memories of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry and the many other great sports moments seen at the Polo Grounds seamlessly into his play-by-play: “I don’t know how you feel about it at the other end of these microphones, whether you are sitting at home, or driving a car, on the beach or anywhere, but I know sitting here watching the Giants and Dodgers apparently playing for the last time at the Polo Grounds, you want them to take their time … 2-0 pitch is low, ball three … you just feel like saying: ‘Now don’t run off the field so fast fellas, let’s take it easy, we just want to take one last lingering look at both of you.” It was a masterful example of the artistry that great sports announcers bring to their work, as well as their empathy for players and fans.
Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, Marty Robbins (1959)
By 1959, singer Robbins had released several hit singles, but he had a dream to record an album of Western songs, not country songs. He persuaded producer Don Law to let him record what would become Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, arguing that the label owed it to him for his considerable success. Robbins admitted to Law it probably wouldn’t sell 500 copies, but this would become Robbins’ signature work and greatest success. The centerpiece of the album is “El Paso,” a song years in the making. The idea first came to Robbins in December 1955 while he drove to Arizona for Christmas. He saw a sign for El Paso and thought that would be a catchy title, but soon forgot about it. The same thing happened in 1956, but during the trip in 1957, while his wife drove their turquoise Cadillac, Robbins sat in the back seat, furiously writing as the song poured out of him, lyrics and melody all at once. Though he had the song, he couldn’t get it recorded until the April 7, 1959, eight-hour session in which the entire album was done. The now-iconic guitar fills on “El Paso” were played by Nashville legend Grady Martin, who created such a distinctive sound that fans still argue about what kind of guitar he used.
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Wes Montgomery (1960)
On Montgomery’s second album for Riverside Records, producer Orrin Keepnews encouraged the guitarist to stretch out more than he had previously, and the record they produced has enduring appeal. Montgomery’s playing is characterized by his trademark thumb-picking technique and frequent use of paired notes an octave apart in his melodic statements, often at staggering speeds. Montgomery’s unique technique was a result of being self-taught that, in the words of saxophonist Ronnie Scott, allowed him to play “impossible things on the guitar because it was never pointed out to him that they were impossible.” In fact, his technique is probably the chief reason he was able to achieve such a full and resonant tone, which did not impede his deft, fluid melodies. On this album, he also is able to switch easily between a variety of styles including swing, up-tempo numbers, ballads and blues while also playing standards and original compositions. The album influenced a wide range of guitarists, including George Benson, Pat Martino and Larry Coryell.
“People,” Barbra Streisand (1964)
Streisand, who set out to be an actress, used her singing voice to become both a famous singer and actress. She eventually got a recording contract, then landed the lead in Broadway’s Funny Girl. Although “People” was taken from that musical, the hit single was released two months before the show opened. According to some accounts, there was a disagreement about whether to cut the instrumental introduction because, at 3:39, the length might discourage radio airplay, but the intro was kept. Arranger Peter Matz remembers that “there was a wrong note” by a French horn, but “Barbra’s vocal on that first take was the best, so they went with it, flaws and all.” “People” found a large and appreciative audience, becoming one of Streisand’s signature songs.
“In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett (1965)
Though he was only 24 in 1965, Pickett had already logged 10 years as a singer in Detroit gospel and R&B groups and had some intermittent success as a solo artist. When he arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, he found a chemistry that had eluded him in earlier recording sessions. Pickett and Stax Records session guitarist Steve Cropper, of the house band Booker T. and the M.G.s, had never met, but in barely an hour, the pair wrote Pickett’s first hit. Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, whose idea it was to bring Pickett to Stax, suggested a rhythm based on the teenage dance the Jerk, and an arrangement was quickly realized. “In the Midnight Hour” clicked with audiences across the country in the summer of 1965 and firmly established Pickett as a major artist.
“Amazing Grace,” Judy Collins (1970)
“Faith’s Review and Expectation,” a hymn written in 1779 by Anglican clergyman and former slave ship captain John Newton, has become one of the most famous hymns in the world, better known by its opening words “Amazing Grace.” Originally published without music, it was not until 1835 that South Carolina singing instructor William Walker paired Newton’s words to an existing tune, “New Britain,” to create the song we know today. “Amazing Grace” has been recorded many times, beginning in the 1920s, but Collins’ deeply heartfelt 1970 recording became one of the best-known versions and unexpectedly her second-biggest hit. “When I sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ my heart soared. My soul seemed to heal …,” Collins said. Using a simple a cappella arrangement, Collins was beautifully recorded at Columbia University’s St. Paul’s Chapel, accompanied by a choir of friends, including her brother and her then-boyfriend, actor Stacy Keach. Her recording seemed to spark a newfound interest in “Amazing Grace,” with treatments ranging from mournful to joyous. Collins’ slow arrangement was likely the basis for arguably one of the second-best-known versions of “Amazing Grace,” recorded in 1972 by the Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
“American Pie” (single), Don McLean (1971)
McLean had been singing “American Pie” in concert for several months when his album and single of the same name began to reach a wider audience in the fall of 1971. After a decade of social and musical tumult, new affection for ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll was growing not only among its original fans but with new generations. “American Pie” seemed to reach all of them with its cascade of images from 1959 to 1969 and a chorus that was both playful and ominous. At the time, McLean mostly declined to confirm the many interpretations and analyses of his lyrics. However, the album was dedicated to Buddy Holly, and McLean acknowledged that his description of reading of Holly’s death in a plane crash in the newspaper he delivered as a boy came from personal experience.
All Things Considered, first broadcast (May 3, 1971)
The National Public Radio flagship news program All Things Considered launched on May 3, 1971, one month after the network itself began broadcasting. With an emphasis on “interpretation, investigative reporting on public affairs, the world of ideas and the arts,” in the words of programming head Bill Siemering, All Things Considered aimed to give voice to diverse segments of American society in a relaxed, conversational mode. The first broadcast, however, featuring recorded excerpts from a huge antiwar protest in the nation’s capital that took place the same day, was “raw, visceral and took listeners to the heart of America’s agonies over the war in Vietnam,” remembered Susan Stamberg, an NPR staffer at the time (she became a co-host of the show the following year). While the inaugural program was broadcast to about 90 stations across the nation, reaching only a few hundred thousand listeners, All Things Considered has since become, according to NPR, “the most listened-to afternoon drive-time news radio program in the country.”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, David Bowie (1972)
On this apocalyptic concept album, Bowie combined several themes from his previous work to create the persona of Ziggy, an androgynous rock star who communicates with space aliens and whose rise and fall heralds the end of the world. While the album fits squarely in the glam-rock genre of the time, it incorporates influences from soul (“Soul Love”), blues, cabaret, garage rock, proto-punk (“Suffragette City”) and stadium rock guitar (“Moonage Daydream”). Bowie’s knowledge of theater also is on display with his voice ranging from sneering and outrageous to sincere and mellow. Aided by Mick Ronson’s blistering guitar, at least two of the songs — “Ziggy Stardust” and “Suffragette City” — can be considered rock standards.
The Wiz, original cast album (1975)
An urbanized retelling of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Wiz (as both show and cast album) has endured as a family favorite and cultural touchstone since its debut on the New York stage in 1975. One of the first musicals with an all-black cast in the history of the Great White Way, the musical would go on to win seven Tony Awards, including the one for best musical. Along with showcasing the talents of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ted Ross and Mabel King, the show made an instant star of its original “Dorothy,” Stephanie Mills. The original-cast album from the show included well-known songs as “Home,” “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” “So You Wanted to Meet the Wizard” and, of course, “Ease on Down the Road.”
Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), Eagles (1976)
It’s unusual for a group to be best known for a greatest-hits compilation, especially for the Eagles who, at the time, were thought of as an album band, not a singles band. It’s even more surprising because the members of the group had no say in the decision to release such an album and didn’t want one released. Against a backdrop of lawsuits, their record company decided to put out a greatest-hits package while the Eagles worked on their next studio album. The supposed potboiler, Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975), was intended merely to generate income and buy the Eagles some time while they worked on what would become Hotel California. Instead, the overwhelming response thrilled the record company — less so some members of the band. Don Henley complained that cobbling together a hits package diminished the artistic integrity of a concept album like Desperado,”from which two songs were taken. Nevertheless, fans loved the greatest hits, and it undeniably elevated the stature of the Eagles, making them one of the most successful and best-loved groups of their era.
Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha,” Gunther Schuller, arr. (1976)
Scott Joplin’s operatic swan song “Treemonisha” languished in obscurity for decades before a renewal of interest in ragtime spurred scholars to reconstruct the work from surviving vocal and piano scores and perform and record it in the 1970s. Until then, the lone performance of the 1911 work had been a concert read-through with only Joplin on piano for accompaniment. The first of these was presented at Morehouse College in 1972 with orchestration by T.J. Anderson and stage direction by Katherine Dunham. In 1975, the Houston Grand Opera presented a new version orchestrated and conducted by Schuller. Deutsche Grammophon’s 1976 recording of this version sold well and increased audience exposure to Joplin’s “Treemonisha.”
Wanted: Live in Concert, Richard Pryor (1978)
At the height of his career in 1978, Pryor recorded this rare double album of fresh comedy. While a version also was released successfully as a theatrical film, Wanted, the album, epitomizes the art of Pryor’s verbal comedy unleashed. Raised in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor grew up in the family “house of ill-repute.” His genius was to live on the edge and manage to laugh about it. His hilarious characterizations of Jim Brown (“Give me the ball”) and Leon Spinks (“Ain’t got no teefes“) were only second to his universe of monkeys making love in trees; German Shepherds that psychoanalyze (“Hey, Rich, what’s the matter?”); and Dobermans snarling (“I want to play!”). Pryor even personified his own heart in a heart attack (“Don’t breathe no more!”) and examined the woods (“Snakes make you run into trees. Snake! … Pow!”). Pryor did not avoid talking about the harder aspects of life, but his sensitivity made him one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time. This album captures all the hilarity and vulnerability that propelled Pryor to the top of the 1980s comedy boom.
“We Are Family” (single), Sister Sledge (1979)
The four members of Sister Sledge were veteran performers by their early 20s, but as 1979 dawned, they had enjoyed only intermittent success in eight years of recording. A collaboration with the members of the disco powerhouse Chic proved to be the turning point for the family group, and they scored their first major hit early that year with “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” setting the stage for the release of the album and single “We Are Family,” written by Chic founders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, in May. Twenty-year-old lead singer Kathy Sledge nailed the eight-and-a-half-minute song entirely on the first take, and it seemed to be everywhere through the summer and fall of 1979. The Pittsburgh Pirates made it their theme song, and the group’s performance of it at the opening game of the World Series and the Pirates’ subsequent come-from-behind victory to win the championship made “We Are Family” an anthem, with its own status and meaning.
Remain in Light, Talking Heads (1980)
Remain in Light presents the Talking Heads at their most essential — contradictory. Layers of driving dance rhythms balance vague postmodern lyrics about the body and mind. Accessible pop-music structures make room for experimental instrumental breaks and electronic noise. The album builds on the successes of the band’s previous three LPs while distinguishing them as innovators even among the new wave. Remain in Light fully embraced and assimilated funk and African styles with an expanded ensemble that included guest musicians such as Adrian Belew, Nona Hendryx and Jon Hassel, and David Byrne drew inspiration from rap and preaching for his lyrics. Remain in Light was unlike anything else released in 1980, and little else since then.
Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A (1988)
The debut of the seminal rap group N.W.A with its album Straight Outta Compton signaled not only a seismic shift in rap from East Coast to West Coast sensibilities, but also a startling socio-political shot across the bow of the culture. With its at times alarmingly blunt, raw language, imagery and subject matter, the musical partnership of Arabian Prince, Dr. Dre (who co-produced the album), Eazy-E, Ice Cube, DJ Yella and MC Ren ignited controversy (via tracks like “F — the Police”) and ample doses of inspiration with the creative rhymes they showcased and the honesty and force with which they were delivered. Even within the fast-moving, ricocheting world of hip-hop, Compton remains — 30 years after its arrival — one of the definitive works of the genre.
Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers (All-Night Vigil),” Robert Shaw Festival Singers (1990)
By age 75, the conductor Shaw had already attained the heights of musical performance, both as an expert choral conductor with his Robert Shaw Chorale and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. After retiring from the latter group, in 1988 he founded a festival in the rural Quercy region of southwest France, called the Robert Shaw Institute of Music, where he brought together singers, teachers and conductors to study and perform choral masterworks in historic, acoustically resplendent Romanesque churches dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. During the second festival, Shaw conducted Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Russian Orthodox “Vsenschchnoye bdeniye” (“All-night Vigil,” more commonly known as “Vespers”) evening service in the Church of St. Pierre in Gramat, France. The work’s texts come from the Psalms and Orthodox versions of the “Magnificat” and “Nunc dimittis,” often adapting melodies from three styles of plainchant: Znamennïy, Greek and Kiev.
“Signatures,” Renee Fleming (1997)
Fleming ranks as one of the best sopranos of our time and, in the course of her career, has been seen on cultural stages from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Street and from The Prairie Home Companion to the Super Bowl. Her ability to bring beautiful singing in a variety of styles to mainstream audiences has been extraordinary. Her first recordings were all signals to the wider public that this voice could go places, and while most of those early recordings dealt with a particular aspect of her abilities, the “Signatures” recording from 1997 showed a variety of strengths in her voice: beautiful sound, excellent support, ability to project and a thorough understanding of the characters she’s portraying.
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