by Len Lear
— Part two
Randall Grass, of Mt. Airy, is a musician and author of In Great Spirits: Portraits of Life-Changing World Music Artists. He will be discussing his new book at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 511 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy, on Friday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m. Here are some of his comments during a recent interview with the Local:
Of all the musicians you have met, who were the most interesting and why?
Sun Ra was fascinating because of the layers of persona that he had and his conscious myth-making. It was very hard to tell what was real in an objective sense as opposed to a symbolic sense and what was conscious and unconscious with him; Fela was such a strong presence; certainly one of the bravest and most resolute people I’ve ever met; he faced down a military dictatorship, and even after they attacked him, destroyed his organization and brutalized his people, he did not back down; New Orleans pianist James Booker was brilliant and crazy but a con-man and very self-destructive; a conversation with him could lead literally anywhere.
Which ones were the most underappreciated, in your opinion?
There have been many; Joe Higgs was a wonderful singer and songwriter who mentored Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and The Wailing Souls, but he is little-known outside hard-core reggae fans; James Booker is one of the great piano players of the past century, yet outside of fans of New Orleans music, few know him; Millie Jackson’s singing was over-shadowed by her often salacious “raps,” but she is a great singer in the Gladys Knight mold.
What music biggies have been the most over-praised, in your opinion?
Adele is a very good singer who made some very down-to-earth and expressive music at a time when so much was over-produced and under-vocalized, but there are many singers around who are greater.
What is your opinion of the music “reality” competitions on TV like American Idol and The Voice?
It’s a double-edged sword; on the one hand, they brought a focus on singing that I think was positive, and they did expose and establish some genuine talent that has had success. In fact, I have been involved with putting out albums by two of them, Ruben Studdard and Crystal Bowersox (both were on American Idol). On the other hand, they’ve given a somewhat unreal picture of what music-making is all about — the development of your craft and performing with live musicians in all sorts of situations as opposed to a kind of glorified karaoke.
How has the radio industry changed over the years?
It has changed radically a few times over the past 40 years; first, there was the rise of consultants and formats in the ’70s; then the move to tighter playlists, stations playing few songs, then the consolidation of the industry into a few corporations that took on tremendous debt which put even greater pressure for ratings/ad dollars, which placed a premium on predictability and not taking chances; then the centralization of programming and syndication. Many stations now only have a couple local on-air deejays, and music programming is highly dictated by central offices; and finally the introduction of the People Meter method of measuring audiences, which has made stations even more conservative. if you tune in at the same time on any given day to different stations, you’ll hear the same songs. This is a huge loss for music; when I was a kid, the local Top-40 stations would play the Beatles, Motown, Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, whatever was great, and that diversity stretched people’s ears and made them more open to different things.
With corporate radio, is there any room left for originality and individual choices by deejays anymore?
Virtually none. Maybe just some mix-show deejays have some flexibility, and that is a shame because there is no room for “happy accidents.” Let us remember that when Sade came out, the word was that she “didn’t fit a radio format.” Luckily, someone took a chance; the response was immediate, and the rest is history.
What is the intended audience for your book?
I think it is for anyone for whom music is more than just entertainment, who appreciates unique art with political or spiritual or deep emotional elements; and the artists in the book are virtually all part of pan-African culture, so it should be of interest for any Afro-centrist.
If you could meet and spend time with any musician on earth whom you have never met, who would it be?
I’ve been extremely lucky to have met many of my musical heroes, but people such as Youssou N¹Dour, Quincy Jones and Bob Dylan come to mind.
If you could meet and spend time with any musician who is now deceased, who would it be?
Jimi Hendrix or Professor Longhair or Curtis Mayfield, whom I spoke with on the phone once or twice but never met.
For more information about Grass’ appearance at Big Blue Marble: www.bigbluemarblebooks.com or 215-844-1870.