Leonard Cohen, “Master of Erotic Despair”

“Suzanne” Live–Watch on YouTube

I have to admit I was never a big fan of Leonard Cohen’s. I found him to be a tad morose, and I (at least at the time) was more drawn to driving, uptempo beats. But I tolerated him to get close to a girl I had a crush on and who would subject me to side after side of Cohen.

I did like “Bird on a Wire,” a song my rock hero Joe Cocker recorded beautifully in spite of his croaky voice. And, of course, Judy Collins had turned the world on to Cohen by recording her own version of “Suzanne.

Over the years, I have warmed to Cohen. One of the most moving performances I’ve ever heard was k.d. lang’s rendition of “Hallelujah,” which she sang at, of all places, the Target National Sales Meeting. At 10 in the morning, in front of thousands of rowdy store managers and caffeinated executives, lang walked out in bare feet and began to softly sing to the accompaniment of a piano. The audience was more accustomed to cheerleader acts like Black Eyed Peas at their annual shindig, and I thought, “Oh God, this is going to bomb.”

But lang, lifted by Cohen’s amazing lyrics, completely captured the crowd. As her voice crescendoed through the verses, the basketball arena where we had gathered grew silent in awe. I could feel the hair on my arm stand on end, and as I looked around me, I sensed others felt the same way.

“Hallelujah” Live Verson by k.d. lang on Spotify

Oscar Brand, Long-time Folksinger and Radio Host

Oscar Brand with Simon Sisters Plus Peter Yarrow–Watch on YouTube

If you look through Oscar Brand’s catalog on Spotify, you’ll find a host of curious titles such as 100 Proof Drinking Songs and Bawdy Songs Goes to College. But since we’re in a presidential election year that’s in particular need of humor, I’ve included a track from Brand’s Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996.

While Brand (February 7, 1920-September 30, 2016) recorded many albums as a singer-songwriter and folk archivist, his enduring record is as a radio personality. For 70 years, he was host of WNYC’s “Folksong Festival,” which earned him a Guinness World Record as the “Longest-running radio programme by the same host.” (More lofty awards include several Peabodys and an Artistic Achievement Award from the Winnipeg Folk Festival.)

During his long tenure at the radio show, he hosted a who’s who of folk greats, including Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Harry Belafonte and Bob Dylan.

“The Union Wagon (Millard Fillmore)” on Spotify

 

Bobby Breen, From Child Star to Motown to Sgt. Pepper’s

“Ombra mai fu” from film Fisherman’s Wharf–Watch on YouTube

Bobby Breen was a child star in a class with other young actor/singers like Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney. According to imdb, he was in nine films between 1936’s Let’s Sing Again and 1942’s Johnny Doughboy, always in a role that would showcase his choirboy soprano.

Born Isadore Borsuk, Breen (November 4, 1927-September 19, 2016) eventually grew out of the voice that had secured his position in Hollywood, and he had to seek out other venues for his talent. One place, somewhat improbably, was with Motown, where founder Berry Gordy signed Breen. Gordy never released an album under Breen’s name, realizing that the singer didn’t really fit the Motown brand that he was building at the time. A few singles survive.

Breen’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album credit is, alas, not for his music, but for his image, which appears on the iconic, celebrity-rich cover. Breen appears in the front row, wedged between George Harrison and Marlene Dietrich.

“Better Late Than Never” on Spotify

Penny Lang, Canadian Folk Legend

“Ain’t Life Sweet” video

Penny Lang was a fixture of the 1960s folk scene, but did not break through into mainstream popularity, perhaps due to her unwillingness to follow musical fashion. When MCA Records approached her to do a recording of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, she declined because they insisted on electric instruments being part of the arrangement. (Judy Collins would later record the song and boosted both her–and Cohen’s–fame.)

Lang (July 15, 1942-July 31, 2016) began her career backing up her father on rhythm guitar. They played Legion halls in Montreal, prisons, hospitals–wherever their variety act could get gigs. As a young woman, she went solo and performed in many folk clubs in both Canada and the US, including Montreal’s Café André, New York’s Gerdes Folk City and the Bitter End, Toronto’s Riverboat and Ottawa’s Le Hibou. She also appeared at major folk festivals such as Mariposa and the Philadelphia Folk Festival.

As folk gave way to rock in the 1970s, Lang took a hiatus, but returned to performing, writing and recording in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Beginning in 1989, she recorded nine albums with the She-Wolf and Borealis labels.

“Gather Honey” on Spotify

 

Paul Bley, Jazz Pianist and Innovator

“Alrec” Live on French TV, 1973

Thom Jurek, writing in The All Music Guide to Jazz says it all: “Paul Bley is among the most influential jazz pianists and composers of the 20th century and a founding father of avant-garde jazz.”

Live in Oslo

In the course of his long career, he organized concerts or recorded with such 20th century jazz legends as Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Charles Mingus, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman.

Performance

Bley (November 10, 1932-January 3, 2016) released nearly 100 recordings and two autobiographies. He taught at the New England Music Conservatory.

Jamie Prefontaine, Member of Winnipeg’s Most Hip-Hop Group

“Runaway” by Brooklyn

Jamie Prefontaine (d. September 22, 2015), who went by the stage name Brooklyn, was a member of Winnipeg’s Most, a popular Canadian hip-hop group based in Manitoba. Two of the group’s members are aboriginal artists, and the trio won numerous Aboriginal People’s Choice Awards in both 2010 and 2011.

“Winnipeg Boy” Official Video

The group formed the Heatbag Records, which released recordings for a number of artists, including their own “Goodfellaz” album, “Northside Connection” mixtape and Brooklyn’s “Mind of a Heatbag.”

“All That I Know” Official Video

I don’t normally comment on artists’ passing, but in Brooklyn’s case I’ll make an exception. While some artists I have featured in the past may have died before their time, most had experienced a long and rich career. In Prefontaine’s case, he was just beginning his, which makes his passing particularly tragic.