My Musical Mount Rushmore

Edward L. Wehrenberg is one of my oldest and dearest friends. I’ve known him for more than 30 years. I love him like a brother, because as far as I’m concerned, he IS my brother. I would do anything for him.

And now I’m giving serious thought to murdering him.

One day, Ed texted me out of the clear blue sky, as we tend to do to one another. I was expecting a movie reference or something sports-related. Again, that’s what we do. Instead, I got this: “Your musical Mount Rushmore. Four artists. And … GO!”

Are you KIDDING me?!?

Music is my world! It comes from nearly all walks of life. And you want me to just pick FOUR artists to represent my entire musical world? SERIOUSLY?

Well, okay … I’ll give it a try.

I always refer to Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and King Crimson as my Musical Holy Trinity. So there’s three out of four right there. Who’s the fourth? I really had to rack my brains for that one. In the end, the answer became obvious. It was the Beatles. In my mind, that made for a pretty respectable Mount Rushmore. Problem solved.

Or so I thought.

Was it really that simple? Could I really summarize five decades of musical enjoyment into four acts? Of course I couldn’t. At some point I texted Ed, “I can do a Mount Rushmore on pretty much any genre, let alone music in general!” And that’s what I started to do.

The funny thing is, I can barely remember who I picked! Now that I’ve had time to think about it maybe I should actually put my picks somewhere I can refer to should that be necessary.

A question like this smacks dangerously close to the “Who’s the Best?” question I work diligently to avoid. Naming someone the best is, to be certain, highly subjective. No one had heard everyone. So who are we to determine someone the best?

But a musical Mount Rushmore … that’s a bit more personal. And it’s something any music lover can do. Best of all, there are no wrong answers!

So why not pick four musicians — genre be damned — who just leap out at me when I think of great musicians and their instruments. Keep the thought to a minimum. Act on instinct.

Let’s see what happens. The artists are presented in no particular order. And by NO means is my list definitive. To say the least, your mileage may vary.

GUITAR

  • Adrian Belew
  • Jeff Beck
  • Jim Hendrix
  • Frank Zappa

In Adrian I hear one of the more innovative guitarists of my lifetime. The sounds he can create can be flat-out otherworldly. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine owes at least a small part of his career to Adrian Belew.

Jeff Beck is one of the more emotive guitarists you’ll ever hear. He makes the guitar talk, scream, howl, or cry mostly through the use of his fingers and few effects. Beck’s take on “A Day in the Life” nearly reduces me to tears every time.

Frank Zappa is one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His guitar represents an additional level to that genius, as his solos are often referred to as “improvised mini compositions” in and of themselves. It is next-level thinking at its finest.

Jimi Hendrix is widely name-checked as the greatest guitarist of all time. And while I will never argue this point, I prefer to see him as the most influential. Few are mentioned as frequently among guitarists. Those who find him “overrated” are almost certain to incur my wrath, as they are usually very young and listening out of context. “Remember,” I scold them, “when Jimi came on the scene, there was no scene! Jimi created it, and inspired all around him.” Other guitarists from that level occasionally share that level of creativity with him, but Hendrix stands out most consistently.

BASS GUITAR

  • Les Claypool
  • Tony Levin
  • Jaco Pastorius 
  • Stanley Clarke

Claypool is a delightfully quirky musician capable of placing his bass guitar into various contexts with minimal effort. His sound tends to dominate whatever band he plays in, but that’s usually not a bad thing. His off-beat sense of humor and innovative use of his instrument also helps cement him into my mind.

Of course, it can be argued that Claypool owes at least a portion of his sound to Tony Levin, progressive rock’s Lord of the Low End. There are others of extraordinary talent (Percy Jones comes immediately to mind), but Levin has taken his sound to the most musical realms, and that sound is unmistakable. Few things amuse me more than hearing a bass part and immediately thinking, “Yep … that’s Tony, all right!”

Jaco Pastorius is in a league all his own. When I listen to other electric bassists, it doesn’t take long to pick up on Jaco’s devotees. The sound is remarkably busy, but unobtrusive within the composition. And he can make that sound float over just about anything, as his efforts with Joni Mitchell clearly illustrate.

Picking Stanley Clarke almost seemed redundant after Jaco, even if their style are quite different. I thought I should pick someone who plays a quality acoustic bass. Well, Clarke DOES. Few are able to go between the two instruments with his level of depth and skill. Other jazz bassists (including Jaco) are associated with one form of bass or the other. Clarke is the only one I can think of who is consistently name-checked for both.

 

KEYBOARDS

  • Bernie Worrell
  • Keith Emerson/Rick Wakeman
  • Tony Banks
  • Herbie Hancock

The fact I’m starting a book on Bernie Worrell has nothing to do with this pick, which I actually made before I was hired for the project. Worrell is the reason 70’s funk exists in the context it does. His use of Moog synthesizers, clavinet, and other keyboards also transcended funk by making its way into jazz, reggae, classical, and “jam” formats among many others. He is nearly every keyboardist major influence, whether they know it or not.

Progressive rock fans will most like argue over who’s sound was more innovative: Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Both are absolute titans of their domains, and both deserve a spot on their Mount Rushmore. Perhaps they can share it? (A cop-out, I know. But I guess that’s the way it goes.)

Tony Banks was the true driving force behind Genesis, even with Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins dominating with their personalities. His highly lyrical lines and odd time signatures came from his right hand while his left held down the bass and chords, usually on a completely different board. He was capable of making a time signature like 9/8 sound as simple as a stroll through the park.

Herbie Hancock was also highly innovative, and made the most of the technology he helped bring to the musical fore. But at the very core, Hancock is one helluva piano player, with a level of touch many would sell their should for. That sound got the attention of Miles Davis. That says more than anything I can.

DRUMS

  • Bill Bruford
  • Stewart Copeland
  • Max Roach
  • Danny Carey

Bruford is probably my all-around favorite drummer. Described as a jazz musician frequently playing in a rock context, Bruford helped propel the music of Yes and King Crimson to the next level. When he finally decided to go to jazz full-time, he turned that genre on its collective ear, as well. Most drummers find a lane and stay there. Bruford owns pretty much the entire highway, if he so desires. Ironically, this piece was written by one of my other choices. If that doesn’t say a lot about musical cross-pollinating, I don’t know what does.

Copeland possesses one of my all-time favorite drum sounds. His kit is marvelously tuned (particularly on the Police classic album Zenyatta Mondatta), making his remarkable technical abilities ring out even more clearly. The sound of Copeland’s snare drum alone is worthy of a clinic. (And yes, Bruford has a remarkable snare sound, too.)

Jazz people are quick to name-check Buddy Rich as THE Great Jazz Drummer. But I’ve never dug the compositions Rich (who was unbelievably talented) played on as much as I dug the pieces from Max Roach. Rich could make his snare drum sound like a machine gun, but Roach could make that sound lyrical without the extra bombast.

I had a tough time choosing between Danny Carey and Gavin Harrison. I chose the former primarily because I heard him sooner. That being said, Harrison is a beast! But Carey is a crucial element to the sound of TOOL, propelling the band forward in time signatures that change bar by bar at times while the rest of the band thunders away with a steady “Drop-D” groove. It’s a sound that never fails to fire me up.

LEAD VOCALS/FRONTMAN

  • Prince
  • Freddie Mercury
  • James Brown
  • Peter Gabriel

The most important thing a frontman does is make the rest of his band disappear while he performs. Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, David Bowie, and Johnny Cash all have this ability, among  few others. But my favorites start with Prince, because he can not only hold the entire stage, he can do whatever is needed once he grabs it. He sings, he plays multiple instruments, he dances, he oozes charisma. In short, he owns whatever musical context he chose to inherit. That is not easy to do.

Freddie Mercury was the Ultimate Frontman. It seems cruel to call what he did “antics,” but the rest of Queen knew it was best to take a step back and focus on their playing rather than try to co-dominate the stage with Mercury. He was one of those magical frontmen capable of putting an audience of 100,000 into the palm of his hand, and keep them there! Make no mistake: it was Freddie’s world. We were just privileged to share it.

Speaking of dominating presence, there were next to none like James Brown (as I’m certain Prince would have attested). James not only sang and danced with a power unlike few others, but he was fully in charge of the sound coming from behind him. Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Page, and Brian May were in charge of their respective band’s sounds. But nobody — and I mean NOBODY — dared try and take the lead from James. Your job was to do what he told you when he told you. And “stay up on the one.”

Some may not see Peter Gabriel as belonging on this particular mountain. But he has always had a sense of the theatrical few other’s possess. Not only was his voice soulful and resonant, but his use of makeup, costumes, and elaborate sets transported you to his musical world like few others. It was more than songcraft. It was an adventure!

SINGER/SONGWRITER

  • Aimee Mann
  • Michael Penn
  • Deborah Holland
  • Ani DiFranco

I love intelligent pop music. Singer/songwriters seem to do the best job at it. No pre-conceived production ideas. No gimmicky choreography. Just honest, bare-boned, emotional songwriting. Aimee Mann has a gift for the dysfunctional, the morose, and the downtrodden within the context of her songs. But she gives these tunes character and generates the deepest sympathy for those she writes about. Because of that, listeners can easily empathize with them. You are drawn in by their plight.

The same can be said for Mann’s husband, Michael Penn. He, too, can break your heart with the turn of a phrase. His songwriting is on the money, with little room for metaphor or assumption. When Michael has something on his mind, he tells you pretty much exactly what it is.

Deborah Holland is as adept as they come when it comes to writing semi-autobiographical lyrics. Her tales may not be precisely her own 100 percent of the time, but there can be no doubting that at least a part of her has made its way into her songs. That’s what makes them all the more interesting.

Ani DiFranco’s independent record label is called Righteous Babe. It’s a perfect fit, for it describes the founder nicely. But don’t mistake the “babe” for something soft or demure. DiFranco has something to say, and she has no problem kicking you square in a sensitive spot in order to get her point across. Her cause be righteous, and it’s best we all heed the calling.

The number of people I left off this list is nothing short of staggering. Hence, the difficulty. No doubt your list is completely different than mine. So go ahead and share it with me. This is the beauty of music: there are no wrong answers.

Discuss.

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3 Comments

  1. So many on your lists would also make it to my own, so I’ll just tell you my “odd one out” if I were constructing the Rushmore of guitarists. Again, 3 of the 4 would mirror yours. But then I’d have to carefully decide who to remove in order to add Curt Kirkwood, guitarist for the Meat Puppets, a band that went from extremely sloppy punk to brilliant southern-tinged psychedelia right after their questionable debut album. The band is goofy, un-serious, and probably drug-addled, but if you ignore all that and just listen to what Curt is doing — it’s the stuff of magic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d inch Wakeman over Emerson due simply to longevity…although Jordan Rudess is pretty damn impressive

    Roach over the ubiquitous Buddy Rich?…not well versed in either so cant give input, but kinda surprised no Peart…again…no Peart?

    Bass – those 4 are monsters…maybe Chris Squire? Sir Nick Beggs is also a top-notch player…Flea, JPJones, Wooten all close

    I’ve always felt Freddie was the def of a Rock Band lead singer…great vox, great performer, great range, great audience participation…you know who else has got a great voice…Ann Wilson of Heart…she kills Zeppelin songs better than Plant…Mick Jagger perhaps

    Guitar – too many…too too many…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is what happens when you can only choose 4. I love Neil, and he’d be the 5th. But it’s all subjective, and I change my mind all the time. Just depends on my mood.

      Like

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