Levon Helm


levon helm 615

by Tony Leone

I can remember when and where it was that I first became aware of Levon Helm. In the early 80s, when MTV was just starting out, they would occasionally play clips from concert movies as videos. I was about 12 years old and had been playing drums in a band for about a year. I had also been doing some singing from the kit.

One afternoon, a clip from something called, “The Last Waltz” came on by a group I’d never heard of called The Band. They were playing a song called,”The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The drummer was playing a black marine pearl Gretsch kit that looked a lot like the ’60 Slingerland kit I had inherited from my dad. He was stationed at stage left more towards the front of the stage, his kit cocked to the side so you could see everything he was doing. There was a vocal mic goose necked directly over his head and he was singing lead with every ounce of his being.

His playing was completely different from all the other drummers I had been hearing and seeing at that time. For starters he had a basic 4 piece kit with just a few cymbals,not one of those huge drum cages with toms and cymbals surrounding him. He held the sticks traditional grip with the left stick in a sideways fashion. I had learned traditional grip from my Dad who was a drummer himself, but many of my drummer friends played “matched grip” as did most of the other drummers I’d been aware of then.

His rhythmic feel was loose and fluid, yet rock solid, deep and funky. His drumming seemed to weave in, out and around the vocal line rather than lock it in with a static “time keeping” groove. His touch was sharp and sophisticated. His sound was low, warm, thuddy, clunky, chunky. Like a gut-bucket, second line, Salvation Army band. There were pauses and big breaths in the music that he accentuated with his bass drum and with press rolls. It totally blew me away and I immediately identified with it. I felt like he was playing the way I wanted to play. For months I walked around thinking the guy I saw was possibly Kris Kristofferson on drums but I didn’t know for sure….

A few months later I was in our backyard raking leaves with the radio on. The local rock station was playing “blocks” from A-Z of the greatest rock bands of all time all weekend. They started the Bs with The Band. I immediately got excited hoping to hear that “Dixie” tune again. Instead,the first tune started with a funky riff between the bass and drums. It was,”Up On Cripple Creek”. The tempo was deep, way back,and the pocket was wide as a river. At the time I considered myself an expert on all of the classic rock bands but this was really like nothing I’d heard before. It was so organic sounding. Real. Unprocessed. It sounded like some guys playing in a room together and the rhythm gave you something to hang your hat on right away. The vocal came in with a soulful southern twang that worked in tandem with the drum beat. They danced around each
other like two prize fighters at the beginning of a championship fight. It hit me like lightning.

If you had told me that day that I’d ever get to meet Levon Helm, let alone play music and share the stage with him, I would have yelled for the neighbors and called the cops. But through his daughter Amy, my bandmate in Ollabelle, we all got to meet him and share many great times together. Musically and otherwise. What I found was that the soulfulness, the realness, the earthiness and that delta swing were ALL who this man really was. The guy you felt like you knew in those songs through that voice and those stories, and that incredible, perfectly placed backbeat was exactly the guy you met, if you were lucky enough to meet him. And if you were so lucky, he went out of his way to make you feel comfortable, included and welcome. He loved people, telling stories and, above all, laughter.

On April 19th, 2012 the music world lost one of its true originals. He was the kind of musician who had no filter between his soul and his hands or voice. He was born and raised at the birthplace of rock n’roll. His lifelong teachers had been the road and the audience. His mission was to make the people dance,smile and feel good. And he seemed always able to tap into that well of light and share it with us all.

Though his passing has caused a tremor of loss through the world of music lovers, his legacy is his music and the joy, tenacity, and celebration of life that it held and conveyed.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, Decade of Note, Drummers, Instrument

Joe Gracey


joe Gracey

by Chip Taylor

I just found out that my old friend Joe Gracey passed away. I was so sad to hear the news. Joe was one of those guys that was a mirror for the best parts of yourself. There are very few people like that. I only saw Joe Read Full Article

Posted in 1970s, Bass Players, Producers, Unsung Hero / Tagged

Steve Popovich



[Sometimes Joes aren't musicians but the people behind the scenes who turn their passion for music into something we can all enjoy. Steve Popovich, a music executive and fan, was a Rock and Roll Joe.]

by Chip Taylor

Just heard the sad news that my friend Steve Popovich passed away. I treasured his friendship so much. He was one of those guys that brought me up every time I saw him. He saw right through bullshit and loved passionate music. Read Full Article

Posted in 1970s, Producers / Tagged ,

Andrew Gold



Once again we have to add another Joe a little earlier than we planned – Andrew Gold died this past week.

Gold had a few big hits as a solo artist but he still is a true Joe. His work as a studio musician in Southern California during the 70s helped define a whole sound. He played multiple instruments (piano, guitar, etc.) on Linda Ronstadt’s breakout album, Heart Like A Wheel, and her subsequent hit records. Check him out on guitar and backing vocals here on Linda’s cover of the Everly Brothers classic:

Gold went on to record with Maria Muldaur, Carly Simon, Karla Bonoff, Art Garfunkel, Leo Sayer, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Jennifer Warnes, Nicolette Larson and many others. But despite all this great work, Andrew Gold will probably be best remembered for the use of his song “Thank You For Being A Friend” as the theme song for Golden Girls.

Here at Rock and Roll Joe we will remember all the good stuff.

Posted in 1970s, Guitarists, Keyboards / Tagged

Nicky Hopkins



Session Man

Nicky Hopkins was certainly a session man, playing piano and keyboards on some of the best tracks and albums of the 60s and 70s. In part due to health problems, Hopkins never joined a band (some say he turned down the opportunity to join Led Zeppelin when they first formed) but you have definitely heard his music. Ray Davies wrote the song “Session Man” for Hopkins and you can find it on one of the Kinks best records.

Nicky Hopkins can be heard on the single version of “Revolution” by the Beatles, great albums by the Who (My Generation, Who’s Next), as well as many tracks with Jeff Beck, Steve Miller and the Move. This is a good list of the many songs that you can hear that feature Hopkins’ outstanding playing.

But Hopkins is rightly best known for his work with the Rolling Stones. He played on some of their best tracks during their best period. Here is one of his first appearances on a Stones record:

You can also hear Hopkins on one of rock’s best ever songs:

And Hopkins is all over the seminal Exile on Main Street album (Ian Stewart also plays keyboards on several Exile tracks but he is a Joe for another day) and his great playing is prominent here:

A book about Nicky Hopkins (who died in 1994) was recently released in the United States and is recommended.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Keyboards / Tagged , , ,

Cornell Dupree



“Not many people read the back of albums.”

That’s what Cornell Dupree told an interviewer years ago. But here at Rock and Roll Joe we do read the back of albums and an awful lot of them featured Cornell Dupree’s name next to “guitarist.” He played with the best of the best – Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Ringo Starr and Miles Davis all featured Dupree on their records.

One of Cornell Dupree’s signature riffs can be heard on Brook Benton’s version of Rainy Night in Georgia – a truly great song.

But Dupree’s best work may have been with Aretha Franklin. He played on some of her biggest studio hits like Spanish Harlem

And Dupree was also part of her touring band (he started out with the King Curtis band) and can be heard on her seminal live recordings like the amazing Live at the Fillmore West.

Cornell Dupree went on to work on his own projects, including a stint with the jazz funk band Stuff in the 1970s.

We had hoped to post about Cornell Dupree sometime in the coming year but we had move it up because he passed away last week at the age of 68. But his music lives on and he will always be a true Rock and Roll Joe.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Guitarists

Baker Knight


Baker Knight

I never met Baker Knight. I wish I had. But what little I do know about him has held my interest for almost 50 years.

Baker was born in Birmingham Alabama in 1933. He played guitar, wrote songs and fronted several local bands including Baker Knight and the Knightmares.

With dreams of making it big, Baker moved to LA in 1958, hoping to get his songs recorded, secure a recording contract or become a movie star. For several years he struggled with little success in any of these endeavors.

A chance meeting with Ricky Nelson provided the songwriting break he needed.

Nelson decided to record two of Baker’s songs which helped establish him as a songwriter. The two songs Nelson recorded were Lonesome Town which reached #6 on the Billboard charts and I Got A Feeling which reached #11. Ricky Nelson recorded many more Baker Knight songs as did Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra and Mickey Gilley.

[This was the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year in 1975]

Throughout his life Baker continued to write, record and release his own recordings but found little solo success.

He returned to Birmingham Alabama in 1985 where he unfortunately developed and struggled with some serious health problems. He died in 2005.

Lonesome Town in my opinion is one of the greatest rock n roll ballads ever written. It certainly may be one of the saddest.

Baker has yet to be recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Songwriter Hall of Fame.

A true Rock and Roll Joe.

Kevin Hale
Westlake Village California

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Guitarists, Songwriters

Richard Bell



by Bryan Owings

Richard Bell first came to my attention in 1970 when I heard Janis Joplin singing”Me and Bobby McGee”. The record was released not long after she passed away and I really liked the sound of her singing and I loved the band that was playing and especially the piano player.

Forward to 1984, and I was playing on what some people might call the chitlin circuit in Alabama, Georgia and my home state of Mississippi. I became friends with some musicians in a band called “The Convertibles” based in Atlanta. I noticed on an equipment case the name Valerie Carter who was, and still is, one of my favorite singers and I asked who the case belonged to. The keyboard player said it was his and he had been her band leader. His name was Richard Bell.

Then I heard Richard play and I knew right away I was in the presence of someone very special. We hit it off right away and not long after that first meeting I was at a party at the place Richard was living with some other musicians and I saw a gold record for the album “Pearl” by Janis Joplin. I asked him where he got it and he said he’d played on it. I found out right away that this guy was not only a “sho nuff” bad ass musician but he was also very humble. We became great friends and played a lot together.

A couple of years later I moved to Nashville and tried to get him to do the same thing but I think he’d been wandering a long time and wanted to get back to his hometown of Toronto. We stayed in touch and over the years we still did quite a few sessions and gigs together thanks to our dear friend, the great guitarist, writer, producer Colin Linden. I found out over all those years what an important part Richard played in lots of musical situations that he never really talked about. He played with people like The Band, Ronnie Hawkins, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Cockburn and tons of other folks. he always made everyone feel important. He didn’t care if you were famous or just getting started in the business. He was the best musician I’ve ever known and also one of my dearest friends.

Richard got sick about a couple of years ago and passed away June 15,2007. After he passed, Colin and I were talking and Colin put together a list of the records Richard had played on that he knew about. It looks like it’s over 400 albums. He was an influence not only as a musician but as a person too. It just doesn’t get any better than Richard Bell. He was a real Rock n Roll Joe.

Bryan Owings is the drummer of the Rock and Roll Joe Band.

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Keyboards / Tagged , ,

John Vandiver



by Robert Earl Keen

I grew up in Houston, Texas, in the the sixties and seventies.  The Houston music scene at the time was healthy, albeit somewhat undefined.  Lightning Hopkins, Houston’s most famous bluesman, was feeling his oats.  The Thirteenth Floor Elevators had a national hit.  And when you turned on your radio and heard “This is Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas, y’all.  Put that hamburger down and let’s all do the Tighten Up!” Well…you had to do what the man said, and get to dancin’.

Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt were writing songs there in the late sixties.  Their presence gave way to a new and vibrant group of singer-songwriter folkies who emerged in the early to mid-seventies.  Houston became a small haven for these young song slingers.  Pool halls and beer joints abandoned their hardcore, country shuffle bands and started holding open mike nights.  Don Sanders, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Shake Russell, Eric Taylor, and Lyle Lovett were among this throng of troubadours who played for tips and beer in the neon coated Gulf Coast nightlife.

I loved them all.  However, my favorite was the bearded blues rocker, John Vandiver.  Short and squatty with round wire rim specs perched on a happy red nose, John looked to all the world like the son of Santa.  He played big fat hollow body electric guitars that bounced on his jolly girth and shook the rafters when he broke into “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy.  He had a gentle speaking voice that turned into a golden megaphone when he belted out “Send Me to the Electric Chair” or “Saint James Infirmary”.  His timing was atomic and the solos he played were melodic and rocking and unimaginable to me given that he played solo.  John was equally magnetic when he fronted a band or was called up to lead a finale, but the magic was seeing one man make so much sound.

Vandiver was humble and gracious to other performers, whether he was giving a short history on the song he was about to perform or sharing the bill with national touring acts, he was more than generous.  I remember seeing him open for Willis Alan Ramsey to a packed house.  John started his set by explaining that he was the opening act and we could talk and scream to our hearts content while he was on stage.  Then he paused and said, “Willis is the greatest thing going and you guys need to listen when he sings.”  Of course as you can guess, John wound up doing three encores.  So in the end it wasn’t just the music, it was the man and warmth and courage you could feel every time he took the stage.

John Vandiver was murdered in 1985 by some drug dealers who mistakenly thought he was the involved in a high level cocaine operation.  When they realized their error and wound up empty handed, the dealers shot John and slayed his girlfriend.

Shortly after the tragedy, John’s friend, guitar maker Bill Collings packed up his one man shop and dedicated his life to helping the police find John’s killers.  Collings could not stand to see the case go dark.  He worked tirelessly with the Houston detectives until eventually the assailants were apprehended and sent to prison.  Bill reopened his guitar shop and within a few years was making some of the finest guitars in the world. He still makes them today.  You would have to ask Bill, but I believe Bill found his calling and his muse in the musical life and tragic death of his dear friend, John Vandiver.

Posted in 1970s, Featured, Guitarists, Unsung Hero / Tagged ,