When we hear “Rock Star”, we immediately have grandiose images: big stadiums filled with groupies throwing their panties on the stage; the legendary excesses of Jimi Hendrix; hotel room partying that gets out of control and eventually culminates in HD TVs being thrown out of windows.
Little do we know, modern days did not invent the Rock Star Attitude. In fact, in many ways, the good old days of the Roaring Twenties proved to be an ideal breeding ground for the basic staples of RSA that we still see today. As demonstrated by…
If you know your jazz, you know about Fats Waller. This towering mountain of a man clocked in at a healthy 300 pounds and 6 feet (pretty tall for the time), and wrote more than 300 jazz songs, many of them classics you can regularly hear today. Honeysuckle Rose, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Vipers Drag, Handful of Keys, Minor Drag, This Joint Is Jumpin, Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now? All Fats.
In fact he was so pants-soilingly good that in 1926, in Chicago, while leaving a performance, he was kidnapped by four men and taken to a hotel. An understandably terrified Waller then got a gun stuck to his back and was told to play some piano. Because, as we all know, threat of extreme physical injury is oftentimes the best motivation to crank out some funky tunes.
As it turns out, the hotel was the Hawthorne Inn, owned by a little and pretty irascible fellow by the name of Al Capone – Fats Waller was the special guest at Capone’s birthday.
Allegedly, Fats left after three days of performance, extremely tired, extremely drunk, and richer by a few thousand dollars. So yeah, when you’re the special birthday gift of one of the most powerful men in the United States, you must be pretty okay at hittin’ the old 88’s. And even if the story is apocryphal, the important thing is that he was good enough that people believed it.
So Fats was clearly a genius at his craft, adulated by his fans…
Rock Star Attitude Rating: 6/10
Most likely reincarnation: André the Giant
…And he could eat you under the table, probably many times over the course of an evening.
“Eating was as popular with Fats as drinking. Often he and his friends, notably James P. Johnson, would have eating contests. At Clarence’s house one afternoon, they cleaned out the ice-box, the winner consuming ten pork chops.”
André the Giant, a French-born wrestler who would go on to be one of the best-known icons of the 80’s WWF (arguably the best WWF there ever was), was 7’4” and, at 530 pounds, contained almost two Fats Waller.
Both the Giant and Waller shared a rather unhealthy appetite for alcohol and food, which is clear from the accounts of several of their friends and acquaintances. Andre once told the story of one night in a small restaurant where he was so hungry he ordered the entire menu to be brought to him one dish at a time. “It took me four hours to eat it all”, said André. It was not uncommon for the Giant to drink so much he passed out and couldn’t be moved: more than once he was left in a hotel lobby because it was impossible to locate him elsewhere, aaaaaand I’ll refrain from joking about the similarities to certain beached sea mammals in fear that André’s ghost comes back to kick my ass.
One of the best jazz clarinetists that ever lived, Bechet’s unique powerful sound naturally made him into one of the very first soloists in jazz music. He travelled around the world to share his music, eventually settling in France in the 50’s where he recorded one of his most beautiful compositions, Petite Fleur.
He played with legends such as Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker, Noble Sissle, Duke Ellington, and a slew of others. His initial success in the US was fairly limited though…
Rock Star Attitude Rating: 9/10
Most likely reincarnations: Mike Tyson/Michael Vick
…because he was what we call a Bad Mother Fucker.
Always on the lookout for some trouble, Bechet had an uncanny ability to stir shit up and just wasn’t at peace with the stillness of any semblance of normalcy. A gun-carrying, boxing, ill-tempered, peculiar little man, Bechet made it seem like he was a mayhem brewster for a living, and every day was payday. He didn’t back down from fighting with women either because, hey, a fight’s a fight: he was not even twenty when he got in trouble flirting with a certain lady at a gig:
“He was fooling around with a chick at a dance by the lake. She pulled a knife and stabbed him. […] They took us to jail and then let us go. When he got back to the dance she thanked us for not getting her in trouble. Sidney was always wanting to fight but they never came off.”
Bechet was the kind of person to flirt with a girl, somehow elevate it to the point where she gets all stabby, go to jail, not snitch, then come back for more.
He got jailed and booted out of England in 1922 for getting in a fight with a prostitute; on a totally separate occasion, he was jailed in Paris, when a woman was wounded in a shootout with a fellow musician – according to one version, the musician in question had made the considerably foolish mistake of telling Bechet he had played in the wrong chord.
He was also notorious for his love of dogs – and, fully embracing the contradiction that is the hallmark of near-batshit insanity, dog fighting. While Ellington respected his craft as a musician, he found it harder to cope with him bringing a large dog named Goola on stage. In Berlin, he woke up one Garvin Bushell at 5am, demanding that his bulldog be given a fighting chance against Bushell’s Great Dane.
Because of his antics, he would not become famous for a while, but now you can rest easy knowing that a totally terrifying statue of him exists in two copies out there.
Duke Ellington was perhaps the most prolific jazz composer of his time, although he would qualify himself as an “American musician” first and foremost, not a jazz musician. Nevertheless he wrote more than a thousand songs: most of us can’t even brag about having had a thousand memorable bowel movements.
Duke Ellington, although proficient, was not a particularly dazzling piano player like Art Tatum, but much like the Beatles his genius came in the form of arranging and composing songs. He was notorious for getting inspired by his fellow band members, and wrote songs specifically tailored for them: Jeep’s Blues for Johnny Hodges, Do Nothing Til You Heard From Me (Concerto for Cootie) for Cootie Williams, and the list goes on… He also wrote a great deal of hot jazz that’s still being danced today, most notably Cotton Tail and Rockin’ In Rhythm.
Not a man to be easily fazed by his collaborators’ peculiarities, he was friends and colleague with Billy Strayhorn, an openly gay activist (who gave Ellington one of his biggest successes with Take the A Train), at a time where most of the general population was all like “Gosh, folks really put that there?” when they heard about gay men.
As Bob Blumenthal from the Boston Globe said:
“[i]n the century since his birth, there has been no greater composer, American or otherwise, than Edward Kennedy Ellington.”
The Duke. He had class. He had talent. He had showmanship…
Rock Star Attitude Rating: 7/10
Most likely reincarnations: George Clooney/John Mayer/Jack Nicholson
…He also was on a perpetual quest for fine ladies.
Wherever Duke went, you could be pretty damn sure he had at least one beautiful lady by his side, or waiting in his hotel room – or both. And apparently, much like his more modern counterparts, no woman could resist his charms, as Rex Stewart testified:
“Many of the lovely ladies upon whom Duke heaped exquisite compliments have succumbed. The number of his conquests is uncountable. Duke enjoyed the company of women, especially pretty ones. It was only a matter of time before a big blowup would happen.”
Uncountable. Think about that for a second: his own musicians just dropped the ball and stopped keeping track.
The “blowup” in question was when Duke disappeared for three whole days on one of his sexcapades. We can only assume he came home very tired, walking like John Wayne in Rio Bravo, to a very irritated wife, because soon afterwards she left for New York with their only son. Nevertheless, Duke kept her living in style for the rest of her life. You gotta hand it to the man, even when dealing with the tragic consequences of his crassest excesses, he still could muster a modicum of class.
Regardless of the impacts on his personal life, you could say that Duke’s lifestyle of sexing served him rather well: he died a month after reaching a very respectable 75th birthday, adulated by critics and fans alike. Let it be a lesson to all of you guys waiting for Miss Right.
Hold on, because this one is kind of a downer.
Lady Day may very well have been the most influential singer of the 20th century. Some had more success than her, but it was she who took the philosophy behind jazz instruments and applied it to vocals, infusing everything she sang with an uneerie beauty. At a time where segregation was par for the course, she also broke conventions by singing for a time with Artie Shaw – a band formed of white musicians – and by singing what was probably the first jazz protest song, Strange Fruit.
She was what you could call a singers’ singer: musicians would regularly flock to her concerts to hear her sing, and Frank Sinatra was quoted as saying, in 1958:
“With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the US during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.”
Rock Star Attitude Rating: 8/10
Most likely reincarnation: Amy Winehouse
All but adulated by fans and contemporary musicians alike, Billie could never totally outgrow a difficult childhood plagued by an absent father, prostitution (she started at 14), drugs and alcohol. Having what could be best described as “severe daddy issues”, she took to calling her lovers “Daddy”, and adopted the stage name of her presumed father, musician Clarence Holiday.
On the other hand, Winehouse’s father was maybe a little too present, taking it upon himself to live with her and try to rid her of her crippling addiction to several substances (remember the lyrics in Rehab), including heroin – the same drug that would be a major factor in Holiday’s descent:
“As self-doubt reclaimed Holiday, she turned again to heroin to make her insecurities – and everything else that was bad in her life – go away.”
I told you this would suck. Here’s a picture of a cute kitty in a cup, because we’re not quite done yet:
Both of them also had questionable choice in men. While Holiday went from one failed relationship to the other, dating drug dealers and addicted musicians, Winehouse was also going for toxic alliances. She dated Alex Clare for a while, who sold his story to News of the World under the extremely savory title Bondage Crazed Amy Just Can’t Beehive in Bed, and married one Blake Fielder-Civil, who claimed that he introduced her to even more hard drugs, and with whom she would get physically violent time and time again.
Holiday and Winehouse, to add the proverbial gloomy icing on the depressing cake, were also both done in by alcohol – organ failure and alcohol poisoning, respectively.
Jelly Roll Morton
Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe was a New Orleans musician (New Orleanian, or as people from New Orleans would say it, “Nooawleeneein”) who, at the tender age of fourteen, decided to say “fuck it” to any semblance of a normal future and started to play piano in brothels and bars around town. That’s where he first came up with the nickname Jelly Roll, a slang term for a particular part of female anatomy. So yes, he essentially called himself a pussy.
Arguably one of the first successful jazz arrangers and musicians, his “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first jazz song ever published at a time where jazz was still seen as something savage and mostly aimed at people with mild to severe mental retardation. Jelly Roll changed all that by throwing sophistication into ragtime, introducing breaks and melodic arrangements, while most of his fellow musicians were still trying to figure out which way to blow in a trumpet.
In a lot of ways, it could be claimed that Jelly Roll was *the* outstanding greatest pioneer of jazz…
Rock Star Attitude Rating: 9/10
Most likely reincarnation: Kanye West
…His main problem was that he was a giant gaping asshole about it.
Remember the really bright kid who always got straight A’s in class but couldn’t stop himself from showing you the laminated copies of his tests? Did you want to hang out with him or punch him? Jelly Roll Morton was that kid.
First off the bat, Jelly Roll sported a diamond tooth and often flamboyant clothing, which doesn’t say “hi, I’m the inventor of jazz” as much as “hi, I’m so full of myself I’m going to burst intestines all over the place, and think you should live in a garbage bin”. A unique dental styling choice he shares with modern reincarnation Kanye West:
But most importantly, according to all accounts, Jelly Roll was a huge rusted douchenozzle whom other musicians avoided as best they could. He insisted that he was the true “inventor of jazz”, and that all other musicians were bumbling primates farting in the hot tub of his own excellence. Kanye West boldly claimed, on the other hand, being the most intelligent rapper in the world.
Like Kanye, Jelly Roll loved to hear himself talk about himself, and would only take a break from it when other people were talking to him about himself… Which is quite apparent in the legendary 1938 interviews with Alan Lomax. Jelly Roll would lay claim to everything that had been done in the history of ever, from scatting (a method where you would voice non-sensical, catchy syllables, akin to speaking in tongues):
“Oh, I’ll sing you some scat songs. That was way before Louie Arm . . . Armstrong’s time. Er, by the way, scat is something that a lot of people don’t understand they . . . and they begin to believe that the first scat numbers was ever done, was done by one of my hometown boys, Louie Armstrong. But I must take the credit away, since I know better. “
…to all the styles of jazz being played, ever (incidentally, he was also a pioneer in the art of being butthurt):
“I have been robbed of three million dollars all told. Everyone today is playing my stuff and I don’t even get credit. Kansas City style, Chicago style, New Orleans style hell, they’re all Jelly Roll style.”
…to the very concept of jazz itself. Every musician in America didn’t know what they talked about, according to Jelly Roll Morton. Except, you know… Jelly Roll Morton:
“There’s lot of people have the conception, but the conception is wrong. And, naturally, a person’s conception has got to be wrong, unless they know what they’re talking about. Er, a lot of times you may be right, but that only comes from guesswork. The fact of it is, every musician in America had the wrong understanding about, er, jazz music.“
Much like your sucky, arguably disturbed, artsy friend who requests once a week that you like her Facebook page about recreating famous works of art with shaved pubes and horse glue, Jelly Roll was, to say the least, not appreciated by his fellow musicians: he died relatively alone in 1941 in Los Angeles, and only a handful of old friends attended his funeral.
Despite being IN Los Angeles at the time, Duke Ellington didn’t make an appearance, presumably celebrating by rubbing massage oil on hot women somewhere else.