Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Kennedy Center Dishonors (2011 edition)

(Warning: No real political content here -- I usually try to keep myself out of Plain Blog except for the baseball posts, but once in a while, I make an exception. Indeed, this is just updated and lightly edited from the last years' complaints. Rant follows:)

The new Kennedy Center Honors list is out. Now, granted, there's no reason anyone should care about the Kennedy Center Honors, but nevertheless...

This year's popular music honoree is Neil Diamond. Neil Diamond? I can't even start my rant properly this year, because instead of it being Paul McCartney (last year) or Bruce Springsteen (2009) it's Neil Goddawful Diamond. And yeah, I know about "I'm a Believer", but how do you put Neil Diamond before, say, Carol King??? I mean, that's not a particularly close call, is it? At least they finally got around to Sonny Rollins, although I have no idea how it takes 34 years to manage that.

At any rate, getting back to the rant proper and ignoring this year's disaster: you can't really argue with McCartney or Springsteen, both obviously deserving, as were Diana Ross in 2007, Smokey Robinson in 2006, and Tina Turner in 2005. That's fine; they've making their way through the 1960s and 1970s, and fair enough.

However. Here's the list of original rock'n'rollers who have received the Kennedy Center Honors:

Ray Charles
Chuck Berry

That's it. Now, it can't be helped that Buddy Holly died long ago, and that Elvis Presley was gone just before the Honors opened for business in 1978 (and long before they noticed rock-era performers with Charles in 1986). Fine. But: notice anyone missing?

Where's Little Richard?

(For that matter, where's Fats Domino? Jerry Lee Lewis? If Perry Como rates...well, granted, if Perry Como rates, why not the Everly Brothers, Danny & the Juniors, and plenty of others, but still, Fats Domino and the Killer are pretty damn important).

I have no inside information here; I suppose it wouldn't shock me if they had offered it to Little Richard and he turned them down flat. But I've been following this for over a decade, and there's never been any reporting to that effect, and he showed up in 1993 and 2000, apparently, to take part in the festivities for others.

Little Richard is a more important figure in American culture than Diana Ross, Paul Simon, Elton John, or Tina Turner...I hardly even have to mention Neil Diamond, do I? Or, as much as I think he's great, Smokey Robinson. He wasn't greater than the other rock-era nominees (Bob Dylan, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and the Who), but he certainly preceded them. Paul McCartney? Without Little Richard, there's no "I'm Down", no "I Saw Her Standing There", no "Oh! Darling."

I mean, I'm not asking them to celebrate the careers of Bob Mould or KRS-One or Andy Partridge (at least, not yet). This is Little Richard. C'mon! What's the hold up?!?


  1. Because everyone is afraid of his acceptance speech.

  2. No love for Neil Diamond?

    One of the many jobs I held way back in my undergraduate days was in a Ticketron ticket office, and Diamond came to the Hollywood Bowl that year. Like you, I had never considered him to be anything special - a decent tunesmith with a nice voice - but let me tell you, I never saw anything sell out so fast. The permanent staffers told me that his fan base was huge, everyone from grandmothers to hippies, so he easily outsold everyone from rock to Motown to classical.

    The category is "popular music", right?

  3. The point isn't that Neil Diamond is or isn't an artist worthy of this honor. It's that he is receiving it before other, far more deserving artists. Little Richard is the perfect example. He was a crucial element in a cataclysmic change in popular music. Carole King is another excellent example. If you are going to reward Brill Building artists, Diamond needs to get in line behind King and a few others.

  4. Exactly. King and Diamond are just about perfect comps for each other, and King is just much, much more historically important and better. It's like honoring Lou Brock but not Rock Raines. Well, in my book it's like honoring, I don't know, Terry Whitfield and not Rock Raines, but others I suppose disagree.

  5. Tim Raines comparable to Lou Brock?!?

    Brock is just much, much more historically important and better, as you mention of King/Diamond.

    Mr. Bernstein, I've been thinking this site was a bit skewed, but this clinches it. ;-)

  6. The last US Top 20 single to whose authorship Little Richard contributed was 1955's "Tutti Frutti". When he was 23. 56 years ago. I couldn't find the link, but I recall reading somewhere that Neil Diamond was a top 3-4 best selling artist for both the 60s and 70s; which I seem to recall was unmatched.

    Little Richard...Fats Domino...Jerry Lee Lewis...what do these men have in common? Iconic hits in their youth, subsequently coasting on the fumes, mainly playing the casino circuit, in their senescence. Its not a bad business model, admittedly, but its hard (for me) not to be a bit cynical about the road these men chose.

    In any event, if the Kennedy Center were doing an "Age 23 Achievement honors", Neil Diamond wouldn't be close to Little Richard. But its a lifetime achievement award, and frankly Little Richard's accomplishments pretty much ended in his mid-20s, with him making a great living off those early accomplishments for the better part of six decades now.

  7. @Anonymous

    Actually you're right, he shouldn't have compared Raines to Brock, Raines was flat out better.

  8. The sides Diamond recorded for the Bang label are catchy and nice, but vastly, comically outweighed by the tons of dreck he produced for Columbia. Worse than nothing; to paraphrase some Adam Sandler movie, everyone is a little more tone deaf for having heard "I Am...I Said", "Forever in Blue Jeans", or "Turn On Your Heartlight".

  9. Omigod, I just realized that someone will have to make the decision whether to show a clip from The Jazz Singer as part of the Kennedy Center event. Will anyone have the courage to say "Please don't"? Or maybe Neil will spare us and veto it himself.

    I own one of his records, purchased new: the Bang single "Shilo"; also a few 8-tracks (functional, as far as I know).

    As for Carole King: Her performing/recording career was a fraction of the length of Diamond's, notwithstanding the recent duo concerts and PBS special with James Taylor. But as a writer, she's clearly been important - the trouble is that most of those classics were written with her first husband. How do you honor King and not Gerry Goffin?


  10. @CSH - The weakness in your argument is that it easily also applies to Chuck Berry and (to a lesser degree) Ray Charles. I've gotta side with our esteemed host on this one---Little Richard has had a much bigger impact on American culture than Neil Diamond. (For one: no Little Richard, no Prince.)

    One of rock and roll's great nostalgists, Bob Seger, once wrote, quite accurately, that "all Chuck's children are out there playing his licks". The same is true for Little Richard. (Neil Diamond, not so much.)

    P.S. Does it bug anyone else that a Brit like Paul McCartney got honored by the Kennedy Center?

  11. On Sir Paul (and Elton John): yes, and I actually had that in last year's rant, but I edited it out this time around to make room for the Diamond stuff.

    I think CSH is just way off base here. Most (not all) performers have relatively short peaks, but the height of the peak matters a lot, too.

    By the way, it doesn't have any bearing at all on his overall importance, but the Little Richard stuff for Okeh in ~1967 is really very good.

    Also: how did they get "Good Golly Miss Molly" onto radio back then, anyway?

  12. Anon,

    Given Brock went into the HoF first ballot, overwhelmingly, and Raines likely never will, I think most folks disagree with you.

    Little Richard's progeny are Kiss et al, not Prince. It just took a generation for that progeny to sprout, sorta like fast racehorses sometimes skip generations in the breeding cycle.

    LR's musical influences on rock and roll aren't anything different than many of the rest of his era. Speaking of baseball, LR is like that flash in the pan guy who has a couple All Star seasons, but can't sustain. Diamond would be more like a 3,000 hit guy, who puts in a workmanlike performance, and for a long time. Based upon pure talent, they'd be comparable, many times. Tim Raines might even be comparable to Lou Brock, in terms of talent, in fact, although Brock was hitting in a tougher era.

  13. @Jonathan Bernstein (10:24 am) Not to mention "Jailhouse Rock":

    Number 47 said to Number 3,
    "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see,
    I sure would be delighted with your company,
    Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me."

    No wonder the old folks were appalled....

  14. @Anonymous (10:41 am) Kiss *and* Prince, yes. Also Sam Cooke, Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Brown, MC5, Otis Redding, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks---it's not a short list (and I could go on).

    As for Neil Diamond---more like a 2,000 hit guy (which ain't bad) in my book. Obviously, YMMV.

  15. Of your list, I'd say only Queen could be considered a direct descendant of LR, and even that only because of the band's name, and F. Mercury's temperament, and his sometimes over the topness. Even Elton John, alike in many ways to LR, can't be said to have sprung from him, weird glasses or no. The rest would have been as they were regardless, imo. As you say, ymmv.

    I think LR was all about dancing naked on top of his piano. That was the thing that got passed on, in whatever form.

  16. @Anonymous (11:52 am) Just for the record, many of the artists I listed have spoken publicly about how Little Richard was a formative influence on them. (E.g., Jimi Hendrix in 1966: "I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.")

  17. Well yeah, all of those would have heard of LR, and made mention of him as influence even, but in order to validate "influence" in the flesh, you have to see it with your eyes, or hear it with your ears. I can hear Chuck Berry in the Stones, but I can't hear LR much, not as a discrete sound, and basically only in the Jagger strutting is it visible (and there's a whole bunch of Hollywood musicals that may be its origin).

    It's always gonna be tough for LR, same as with Kiss or even Alice Cooper (who actually had quite a collection of excellent music). Promiscuous make-up and stage antics must be considered in the total mix of things, yes, and those guys were responsible for bringing that on, but when blended with average music or a deficient quantity of above average music, that weighs down the other part of it.

    I'm curious though, and gotta ask. What's the MC5 connection to LR?

  18. Yup, I'm totally wrong on this one - when looked at in terms of influence. We know for sure that Little Richard is more influential than Neil Diamond; we know this because Neil Diamond will surely have zero lasting influence, in spite of his prodigious commercial success.

    That said, for me its important to be careful about overstating influence. For example, someone earlier said that the Beatles were influenced by Little Richard. Probably so. The Beatles were also influenced by the thousands of hours of practice in skiffle clubs in Germany in the early 60s; you can have the influence from listening to LR and I'll take their German period, and I'm pretty sure I'll end up with quite a bit more influence.

    In any event, the Kennedy Center, like any HOF, is ultimately a marketing phenomenon, so perceived influence is very important, whether it is or isn't overstated in fact. So I am wrong here. Little Richard without question is perceived as much more influential than Neil Diamond, so it behooves a HOF-like organization to recognize that fact.

  19. Among other things, there's this:

  20. CSH,

    I'm hardly an expert on the technical side of music, but to my ear the Little Richard influence on The Beatles, and Sir Paul in particular, is just very obvious. And then through them (and Sam Cooke, and others) to, well, everybody else.

    If I was to try to make a list of the ten most influential singers of the recorded music era, I'd probably say there are about five real obvious ones (Crosby, Armstrong, Sinatra, Elvis, Ella) and then you can start getting into fights, but Little Richard is to me at least very much part of the conversation. As far as I know, people just didn't sing like that before him (although I'm sure someone with a lot more knowledge than I will correct me if I'm wrong). They sure did after, though.

  21. "We know for sure that Little Richard is more influential than Neil Diamond; we know this because Neil Diamond will surely have zero lasting influence, in spite of his prodigious commercial success."

    Say what? We know X because surely X?

    That said (I just couldn't resist), I basically agree with you. Diamond was not an innovator. He sang ballads - a very old and respected form of popular music. He sang well, but will probably not be remembered a couple of hundred years from now. However, I suspect that the same is true of almost all of the "great" popular musicians of our era. My choice for an exception would be Paul Simon. Now there's an innovator.

  22. That's a pretty funny catch about the obvious circular logic within the "Neil Diamond = no influence" assertion. Not that I don't mangle arguments back here often, but I gotta tell ya, a post that begins with "Yup, I'm totally wrong" is one of the hardest for a guy like me to compose well :).

  23. Hey, anyone who ever starts a comment that way is automatically a valuable commenter, end of story.


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