Well, here we are again: making the trip once more from Eastern Michigan to the Washington, D.C. metro area, and tracking the musical history along the way. Last time I couldn’t resist spending ages on Detroit (because Detroit deserved it, naturally), so we left off a paltry two hours into the trip, just outside Toledo, Ohio. This time, we’re picking up another two hours down I-90, in Cleveland. And we still have a long trip ahead of us–both literally, in the sense of miles driven, and figuratively, in the sense of words written–so let’s get straight to it!
It may come as a surprise to those who only know Cleveland from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or that Ian Hunter song at the beginning of The Drew Carey Show, but the mid-sized Midwestern city has a storied musical history all its own. And we’ll get to that. But first, there’s Frankie Yankovic: second-generation Slovene immigrant and master of Slovenian-style polka (bearing absolutely no relation to that other accordion-playing Yankovic), who grew up and made his first recordings in Cleveland. I’m actually being sort of glib–my own Polish heritage causes me to vastly overcompensate any time the subject of polka comes up–because Yankovic’s first national hit, a 1947 polka cover of the Shelton Brothers‘ country and western standard “Just Because,” is actually a pretty fun tune. And it’s culturally significant, too: due largely to the success of Yankovic, nearby Euclid, Ohio is now the home of the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame and Museum. Take that, Rock Hall!
Back to more familiar territory, Cleveland was also a major center for African American gospel music. The Wings Over Jordan Choir, founded in 1935 by Rev. Glenn T. Settle, was the first full-time professional Black choir in America and the first to receive a national radio audience with a capella arrangements of traditional spirituals like “Plenty Good Room.” One of the choir’s 1940s alumni was gospel-turned-R&B singer Sister Wynona Carr. Like her chief inspiration, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Carr’s early gospel music had a raw, sensual undertone that often threatened to cross over into secular territory; this goes some way toward explaining her eventual switch to Rhythm & Blues, as well as the unusual amount of popular culture references in her gospel sides. Indeed, her 1949 recording “I Heard the News (Jesus is Coming)”–a rewrite of Roy Brown’s decidedly secular jump blues song “Good Rocking Tonight“–may technically qualify as the first ever Christian rock song.
A more well-known singer from Cleveland is recently deceased jazz vocalist “Little” Jimmy Scott, whose haunting, otherworldly contralto was the result of the rare genetic condition Kallmann syndrome, which stunted his growth and prevented him from reaching puberty. “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” considered to be his signature song, was recorded in 1949 while Scott was still a featured singer with Lionel Hampton‘s Orchestra. Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous (but still pretty damn sublime), Cleveland was also home to the theatrical, prodigiously potent Rhythm & Blues vocalist Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, whose swampy 1958 single “Alligator Wine” is a veritable master class in guttural grunts, shrieks, and general animalistic noises.
Another (very) recent passing, Bobby Womack led an illustrious 50-year career that began in Cleveland’s predominantly African American Fairfax neighborhood. Bobby and brothers Cecil, Curtis, Friendly Jr., and Harry started out singing gospel; their father Friendly Sr., a devout steelworker, threw them out of the family home after they switched to “the devil’s music” under the tutelage of another secularized gospel singer, Sam Cooke. Renamed The Valentinos, the Womacks scored an early hit for both themselves and the Rolling Stones with their 1964 country-soul song “It’s All Over Now.”
Cleveland’s importance to rock and roll history was secured basically from the beginning; legendary DJ Alan Freed is widely credited for coining the term “rock and roll” while working for Cleveland AM Radio station WJW. But in terms of homegrown musical acts, Cleveland wasn’t a major player until the ’60s, when bands like the Outsiders, led by guitarist Tom King, broke through with national hits including the evergreen “Time Won’t Let Me.” An on-again, off-again member of the Outsiders, drummer Jim Fox, went on to form the James Gang with guitarist Joe Walsh. Walsh’s muscular guitar playing and über-Midwestern, drawling vocals made songs like 1970’s “The Bomber” some of the era’s most memorable guitar-rock, and the James Gang remain classic rock radio staples to this day.
Another early-’70s band that emerged from the ashes of Cleveland’s mid-’60s garage scene was the Raspberries, a power pop group composed of ex-members of Cyrus Erie and the Choir. The Raspberries scored their biggest hit with 1972’s “Go All the Way,” a shining example of their combination of heavy guitar riffs and sweet, Beatlesesque vocal harmonies. Incidentally, Raspberries lead singer Eric Carmen would go on to solo success with soft rock hits like 1975’s “All By Myself“…but I’ll spare you that on the playlist.
Compared to Kansas City or even Detroit, Cleveland was never a major “cradle” for jazz music. Suburban Cleveland Heights was, however, the home of avant-garde jazz maverick Albert Ayler. After his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1963, Ayler began honing his free-form, idiosyncratic saxophone style in clubs around Cleveland’s east side; perhaps understandably, local audiences found it a bit too outré, and he ended up relocating to New York City with his trumpeter brother Donald in 1964. “Ghosts,” from Ayler’s 1968 album Love Cry, is one of the more accessible examples of the Ayler brothers’ deconstructive, cacophonous approach to jazz. Sadly, Ayler would die just two years later, presumably by suicide; his body was found in New York’s East River on November 25, 1970, then returned home to be interred in Cleveland’s Highland Park Cemetary.
Another tragic story is that of former Creem writer and proto-punk pioneer Peter Laughner, who rock critic Richie Unterberger dubbed “probably the single biggest catalyst in the birth of Cleveland’s alternative rock scene in the mid-’70s.” Laughner died in 1977 of acute pancreatitis due to severe drug and alcohol abuse, but he cast a long shadow. His band Rocket from the Tombs, formed with David Thomas and Gene O’Connor (better known as Cheetah Chrome) in 1974, were something like Cleveland’s answer to the Stooges; Laughner’s and Chrome’s nihilistic anthem “Ain’t It Fun” has become part of the cult rock canon, even spawning a (vastly inferior) 1993 cover version by Guns n’ Roses. And while Rocket lasted only about a year in their original incarnation (the surviving members reunited in 2003), their split produced not one, but two seminal Cleveland punk groups: Thomas and Laughner went on to form Pere Ubu, while Chrome hooked up with Youngstown vocalist Stiv Bators to form the Dead Boys.
More recently, Cleveland was the birthplace of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, formed in 1988 by Trent Reznor of Mercer, Pennsylvania. Melodic rappers Bone Thugs-n-Harmony also originated in Cleveland; the title of their breakthrough album, E. 1999 Eternal, refers to the neighborhood around East 99th Street and St. Clair Avenue where the band members grew up. And while Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi, would launch his alternative hip-hop career only after relocating to Brooklyn, he was raised in the affluent Cleveland suburbs of Shaker Heights and Solon. But enough about Cleveland. It’s high time we moved another 40 miles or so down the road to Akron.
Akron may be a much smaller city than Cleveland, but it has a surprisingly rich musical pedigree nevertheless. R&B vocal group Ruby & The Romantics,known for their sweet 1963 hit “Our Day Will Come,” grew up in Akron; as did African American protest folk singer Len Chandler, a significant influence on both Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. Smooth soul group The O’Jays hail from Canton, about 24 miles to the south; the sons of their lead vocalist, Eddie Levert, later went on to form late-’80s/early-’90s slow-jammers LeVert.
One of the more colorful characters to emerge from Akron is outlaw country singer David Allen Coe. Coe spent much of his early adult life in various correctional facilities: including Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, where he was allegedly encouraged to go into songwriting by none other than his fellow inmate, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Coe is probably best known for his hit songs written for other artists, including Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 “Take This Job and Shove It.” But given the importance of prison to his musical career, it seems only fitting that we give the spotlight to the title track from his 1968 debut album Penitentiary Blues.
The Akron area also boasted a small but significant punk/new wave scene in the ’70s and early ’80s, centered around Akron (particularly local basement club the Crypt) and nearby college town Kent. Tin Huey may not be a household name, but their Zappa-inspired experimental rock was influential to the development of the so-called “Akron Sound.” A better-known group from the scene was Devo, who formed at Kent State University in 1972 and went on to help set the template for the merging of punk and art-rock with their 1978 debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! Another group of Akronite new-wavers, the Waitresses, ensured their inclusion on ’80s music marathons until the end of time with their 1980 underground-turned-mainstream hit “I Know What Boys Like” (they also recorded the theme song to the short-lived cult TV comedy Square Pegs). And while Chrissie Hynde didn’t get famous until she hooked up with English rockers the Pretenders, she did revisit her hometown–and the ravages wrought by overdevelopment and pollution–on the 1982 Pretenders B-side “My City Was Gone.”
The most recent Akron band to hit the big-time is the Black Keys, who started recording their stripped-down, traditionalist punk-blues in drummer Patrick Carney‘s basement. This playlist’s selection, “10 A.M. Automatic,” comes from their third album Rubber Factory, recorded on the second floor of an actual abandoned General Tire plant in Akron, once known as the “Rubber Capital of the World.”
But it’s time to keep moving, down the Pennsylvania Turnpike past Pittsburgh. One of Pittsburgh’s better-known sons, easy listening schmaltz-meister Perry Como, is actually from Canonsburg 18 miles to the southwest. Como scored his first pop hit in 1945 with “Till the End of Time,” a ballad based on Frédéric Chopin’s “Heroic Polonaise.” Another traditional pop singer from Canonsburg, Bobby Vinton, cemented his own place in music history–and, thanks to David Lynch, in my nightmares–with his lush 1963 cover of Tony Bennett’s “Blue Velvet.”
Pittsburgh proper, like Detroit, is home to many significant jazz musicians–too many to list, in fact. The condensed version, however, must begin with Billy Eckstine: the singer, trumpeter, and bandleader whose legendary 1940s big band became a “finishing school” for young innovators in the emergent “modern,” or bebop style–including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Pittsburgh’s own Art Blakey. Another major influence on bebop to come out of Pittsburgh was trumpet player Roy Eldridge; “Trumpet Blues,” from his 1954 album with Gillespie, is included here, and features another Pittsburghian, Ray Brown, on bass.
Later, Pittsburgh’s vibrant African American cultural center the Hill District would produce soul-jazz crossover guitarist George Benson. “The Cooker,” the opening track from Benson’s 1966 album The George Benson Cookbook, is a strong early example of his funky yet sophisticated style. Perhaps the most significant jazz artist to come out of Pittsburgh, however, was pianist Ahmad Jamal, who stalwart jazz critic Stanley Crouch considers to be second in importance in the development of post-1945 jazz only to Bird himself. Jamal has been recording since the early 1950s–and continues to record and perform, at age 84, to this day–but it felt most appropriate for our purposes to highlight the title track to his 1989 album Pittsburgh, a tribute to the hometown that he said in 2001 “meant everything to me and…still does.”
In addition to jazz, Pittsburgh was also a major hub for doo-wop music in the ’50s and early ’60s. The Del-Vikings were the first local doo-wop group to break, with their 1957 hit “Come Go with Me.” But the most well-known doo-wop group to come out of Pittsburgh was the most well-known doo-wop group, period: the Marcels, whose 1961 cover of Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” was literally the song that put the bomp in the bomp-shoo-bomp-shoo-bomp.
One interesting chapter in Pittsburgh’s music history belongs to ’60s pop/rock band Tommy James and the Shondells. James formed his first version of the Shondells in the small city of Niles in Southwest Michigan; they toured the Midwest, cut a single record in 1964 (a version of Jeff Barry’s and Ellie Greenwich’s “Hanky Panky“), then disbanded when it failed to chart nationally. But a year later, Pittsburgh dance promoter Bob Mack discovered the single and began playing it at local parties; soon it was also being played on Pittsburgh radio stations. In early 1966, James caught wind of the single’s new lease on life and came to Pittsburgh, where he recruited local band the Raconteurs (not to be confused with the Jack White vehicle) to become the new lineup of the Shondells. But it was James himself who recorded what was arguably the “band”‘s most enduring song: the 1968 pop-psych masterpiece “Crimson and Clover,” featuring one of the earliest uses of the vocoder in pop music history. Another pop-psych band, the Jaggerz, were Pittsburgh born and bred: so much so that their name was derived not as might be expected from the plural for Rolling Stones frontmen, but from the “Pittsburghese” term “jagger bush,” for “thorny bush.”
Several other Pittsburgh rock bands have come to national attention in decades hence. Four fifths of the glam metal group Poison formed as “Paris” in nearby Mechanicsburg before moving to the mecca for early ’80s glam metal bands, Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. Jam band Rusted Root came together in 1990, and scored a radio hit in 1995 with the pretty, Peter Gabriel-ish “Send Me on My Way.” And activist punk rockers Anti-Flag have been together since 1992. One left-field (at least for this blog) artist to come out of the Pittsburgh area? None other than Christina Aguilera, who gained fame as “the little girl with the big voice” at local talent shows before landing a spot on The Mickey Mouse Club and going platinum with songs about how to rub her properly.
Most recently, Pittsburgh has stayed in the national consciousness for its hip-hop and electronic music. Mashup DJ Greg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, has garnered critical plaudits for his epic, eclectic, copyright-flouting collages of sampled hooks from the last five-plus decades of popular music. Rapper Wiz Khalifa broke out in 2011 with his Steelers-repping single “Black and Yellow.” Finally, from the Point Breeze neighborhood comes alternative rapper Mac Miller, who I reluctantly include on this playlist despite my irrational disdain for white rappers and my overpowering urge to punch him in his douche face every time I see a picture of him. (His flow’s okay.)
And that wraps up Pittsburgh, so we must be ready to move on to D.C. at last…right? Well…here’s the thing. This post is already pushing 3,000 words, and the accompanying playlist is the longest DRM yet, at a whopping 43 songs. And since I feel like I didn’t even do justice to Pittsburgh, let alone the freaking U.S. capitol and the original Chocolate City, I think it’s best that we wait a week or two and give Washington D.C. a very special Road Mix all its own. It’s only fitting, since the D.C. metro/Northern Virginia area is going to be my home for the foreseeable future. So yes, this two-part Road Mix has just become a three-parter. But we’ll be back soon with its
thrilling long-awaited conclusion!
From Michigan (and soon Virginia) with love,