It’s been nearly eight years since George Michael released an entire album of new music, and three since he put out a single that wasn’t a cover of New Order’s “True Faith.” But in 2011, the singer-songwriter starred in what must have been one of the year’s most gripping YouTube videos, two minutes as gripping and heartfelt as anything on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, his essential 1990 album.
There was no music, and Michael didn’t sing a note. In the clip, which was posted on December 23, Michael gave a press conference in which he discussed his recent near-death experience that began on November 21 on the Vienna stop of his forty-eight-date European tour and which he described as “the worst month of my life.” The normally robust singer, who had contracted a chest infection that was later diagnosed as life-threatening pneumonia and spent a month in hospital in Vienna (including ten days in the intensive-care unit), appeared gaunt and gray, often struggling to catch his breath.
In a year that took so many of music’s greats (R.I.P., Amy Winehouse, Nikolas Ashford, Phoebe Snow, Vesta Williams, Clarence Clemons, Dobie Gray, Billie Jo Spears), Michael is truly lucky to be alive —and he knows it. So what’s next? First, as he said in the interview, he will reschedule the cancelled dates on the Symphonica Tour that he was staging throughout Europe and the UK when his illness struck. The shows featured Michael performing his own hits and non-hits as well as select covers (including Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game”) with a symphonic orchestra.
No discussion of the last twelve months in music would be complete without a proper shout out to Adele, the blue-eyed, soulful Brit who ruled 2011 with one album (the multiply GRAMMY-nominated 21) and two No. 1 singles (“Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You”), so here we go.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what was hot and not about the rest.
1. Drake: Last year, he called his debut album Thank Me Later, so now feels like the right time to express our genuine appreciation for the Canadian rapper who balances tough and tender so perfectly. With his second album, Take Care, and two of its key cuts, in particular—the fantastic first single “Headlines” and the title track (featuring Rihanna)—he brought sexy back to rap for the first time since ladies loved (LL) Cool J.
2. Girls on film: From Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” to Lady Gaga’s “Judas” to Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Into You” to Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” it was an excellent year for women in pop videos. But it was Ke$ha in “Blow,” Kelly Rowland in “Motivation” and Rihanna in “We Found Love” that injected new energy into a decades-old art form and elevated it above and beyond promotional tool to indispensable companion piece.
3. Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams “Moanin’” on American Idol: I didn’t love the bulk of their solo performances during the 10th season of Idol, but when Reinhart and Abrams came together on the Top 8 results show for the vocalese version of Charles Mingus’ “Moanin’,” the unexpected result was the best musical moment I saw all season.
4. Diana DeGarmo on The Young and the Restless: Speaking of Idol losers, season three’s runner-up’s stint as Angelina on daytime’s No. 1 soap hasn’t been so well-received by critics or fans, but I dissent. There’s both artistry and comedic gold in DeGarmo’s portrayal of a tone-deaf “singer” and daughter of a New Jersey mob boss, and I’m looking forward to being as wowed by her Pygmalion-style makeover as I was by her Idol rendition of “Don’t Cry Out Loud” all those years ago.
Rock is a team sport and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Many a great band has been broken up by a member that has forgotten this rule. While it’s the frontman that may get all the glamour and the attention (often times, deservedly so), it’s the other guys that make a band. Many are support players, filling instrumental gaps and contributing to the overall “chemistry” of the group. However, some of those “support players” are anything but. Occasionally, some will rise to a special level of distinction, that of the side man; someone who can distinguish themselves not only through their musical ability but a certain je ne sai quoi.
The great thing about being a side man is that the position allows greater flexibility then the front man. The front man is, of course, expected to be in the front, the singer, the (obvious) star. But good side men shine through, so it’s unsurprising that many have gone on to form their own groups. For example, guitarist Jimi Hendrix wasn’t birthed a star. Before his time with The Experience, Hendrix was backing up the likes of the Isley Brothers and Little Richard among others.
The more common side man is the hired gun, the mercenary player that is versatile and professional to perform in whatever group or set up they are presented with; a job which is not as easy as it sounds. And these guys are real workhorses. Take Pino Palladino and Robert Finck for example. Knowing Palladino personally would likely reduce one’s degrees of separation from any major rock performer from the past three decades to one, thanks to stints with The Who and John Mayer. Finck is no slouch either, pulling drum duty for some of the ’90s greatest alt-rock royalty—as a longtime member of Nine Inch Nails and with Guns N’ Roses.
So, you’re probably wondering why we’re waxing on about musical sidekicks. The contributions of the side man have gained some unfortunate exposure lately thanks to the passing of one of the greats, Clarence Clemons. The Big Man left his sonic mark in many acts, none more prominently then with Bruce Springsteen as a member of the E Street Band. However, another notable side man recently passed and inspired us to bow our hats to some of the great “second bananas” in music.
Upright bass player Grant Marshall, who passed away on August 7th at the age of 83, was an original member of Johnny Cash‘s backing band The Tennessee Two. Marshall appeared on many of Cash’s most famous recordings including Cash’s set at Folsom State Prison. Marshall’s relationship with Cash did not end on the stage, with Marshall acting as the man in black’s tour manager for a time. Eventually, the two men had a falling out during the ’70s in the midst of a very troubled period for the country singer. While Marshall and Cash had their professional and personal scraps, the two men reconciled later in life, playing shows together in the late ’90s. Also, it’s worth noting that neither Cash’s or Marshall’s legacies would be what they were without the other. So, Marshall, we salute you and the other great side men of rock history. Keep up the good work.