By Spencer. It’s a good week to focus on simpler times, so we continue our series on the essential vinyl albums with a look at a couple of guitar gods from very different eras; Kurt Cobain’s favorite Depression-era icon; the godmother of punk; and a team-up of the two greatest drummers of all time.
As always, each of these albums is available on vinyl or via your preferred digital music store or streaming service. But never forget the first rule of music collecting: if it was originally recorded in the vinyl era, it really does sound better on vinyl.
Gene Krupa & Buddy Rich – Krupa And Rich: Those who know will tell you, the two greatest drummers who ever lived were Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. (In that order, I’d submit, but that’s treading into a very contentious debate). Well, for one album in 1956, they joined forces for one of the most impressive drumming exhibitions ever put to record. What made this the ultimate showdown, beyond their monster reputations and egos, was the fact that their respective styles were so distinctive—and as this album reveals, unexpectedly complimentary—from one another. Gene Krupa was the finesse man; as my grandmother once said in making her case for him, “he made the drums sing.” And you can hear that in his more delicate approach to the instrument, brushing the cymbals with such a light touch that they seem to shimmer and hang in the air. Buddy Rich, though, was the power man, with Gatling-gun snare fills that seemed to defy the physical limits of the human wrist. (If you saw the movie Whiplash, Buddy Rich was the idol that Miles Teller was aspiring to be).
On this LP, Krupa and Rich each act as the feature drummer on different tracks, but on “Bernie’s Tune,” they give the audience what it wants and drum as a duo—leading with a seven-minute dueling solo that’s a master class in the art of the skins. Imagine Clapton and Hendrix trading riffs, or Jordan and LeBron playing on the same team, or Shakespeare and Joyce penning a book together. If you’re a drummer, that’s what this moment in musical history represents to you.
Gene Krupa & Buddy Rich – “Bernie’s Tune”
Lead Belly – Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: Nirvana fans will know “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” as Kurt Cobain’s swan song on that legendary Unplugged performance just a few months before his death. But have you heard Lead Belly’s original? Cobain, whose choice of covers that night revealed an impressing and sophisticated grounding in music history, knew it well, and that song was a message to the young rock fans out there to explore one of the great forefathers of modern music. Lead Belly (born Huddie Ledbetter) was a blues guitarist and Americana songwriter starting way back in 1903 and continuing all the way through the 40s. His music in the 30s, along with the work of Woodie Guthrie, is the quintessential sound of the Great Depression. Crafting most of his music on the twelve-string acoustic, his style isn’t at all on-par with the showy leads of later blues virtuosos; instead, he used ornate finger-picking of the type that would later find echoes in the guitar work of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. With recordings that spanned decades and covered topics as wide-ranging as the Titanic, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow, and Howard Hughes, there’s no one definitive Lead Belly record, so just pick up whatever you find. The Smithsonian has put out some of the finest compilations, including the album listed here and the even more extensive five-disc set, The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, which covers virtually every facet of his catalog.
Lead Belly – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
Patti Smith – Horses: Patti Smith’s vocals are admittedly an acquired taste. But I fell in love with her music after first falling in love with her words. Her first memoir, Just Kids, details her days in 60s and 70s Chelsea with best friend and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (who was responsible for the iconic cover photo on Horses you see here). Even if you don’t know her music, read the book, because I promise you it’s quite possibly the best piece of literary writing to ever come out of a musician. From there, learning the subtle joys of Horses, her 1975 debut album and one of the first great punk records, is easy. Listen to her re-imagining of “Gloria,” the Them/Van Morrison classic. Merging the original lyrics with her own verses of spoken-word poetry, she builds the song into something cathartic and expressive that transcends a simple pop song. “Over the weeks we spent at CBGB, it had become apparent to us all that we were evolving under our own terms into a rock and roll band,” she writes in Just Kids. “We hadn’t really put it in words, but … we could feel a momentum gathering. By the improvised end of ‘Gloria,’ we had unfurled ourselves.” So when you hear that song come barrelling apart into an explosion of proto-punk energy, you’re hearing the exact moment when one of rock’s great pioneers, in her own mind, first found her voice.
Patti Smith – “Gloria”
Kenny Burrell – Midnight Blue: As far as the early guitar gods go, there’s jazz and there’s blues, and most old time guitarists fall comfortably into one of those boxes. Not Kenny Burrell. Influenced by both Django Reinhardt and Muddy Waters, he began tailoring a sound in the 1950s and 60s that seamlessly blended the two. As a session musician with the likes of John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, and Lena Horne, there are plenty of places you may have unknowingly heard Burrell’s crisp, cool sound. But the best place to go if you want to discover him is his 1963 solo masterpiece, Midnight Blue. The song choices range from samba to smokey lounge jazz that befits the album’s name. Case-in-point, “Soul Lament” abandons the backing band entirely, letting Burrell build lush, beautiful soundscapes from just his own strings. It’s an ideal late night record for unwinding with a drink in hand—which, if you’re anything like me, is exactly why jazz is necessary.
Kenny Burrell – “Soul Lament”
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – Texas Flood: And then sometimes you need the exact opposite of unwinding—and that’s where Stevie Ray comes in. With a guitar style that always bleeds energy and a love of the wah pedal that bordered on the obsessive, nobody did modern blues better, and you can largely credit Vaughan with carrying the dying genre through the stagnation of the 80s and keeping it alive for us today. He did it by fusing classic blues riffage with the kinds of modern, overdrive-fueled guitar tones you were more likely to hear in hard rock and hair metal. That’s half his story, but the other half is his committment to throwback equipment; he played on a custom Stratocaster pieced together from late 50s and early 60s components, and brought back the use of vintage amps (which were the only equipment really capable of channeling the kind of power he needed for his monster licks). Now it’s old-hat to reclaim vintage sounds through the use of era-appropriate equipment, but when Vaughan did it, it was revolutionary. You can also thank his Texas upbringing for the obvious overtones of country and rockabilly he infused into his genre. Maybe I’m biased because we both share Austin roots, but Stevie Ray is the true sound of Texas. Here, I give you a double dose of Double Trouble: the rocking “Pride And Joy” and the slow jam of “Texas Flood.”
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – “Pride And Joy”
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble – “Texas Flood”