Prince Dead at 57

Dearly beloved

We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night
So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills
You know the one, Dr. Everything’ll Be Alright
Instead of asking him how much of your time is left
Ask him how much of your mind, baby
‘Cause in this life
Things are much harder than in the after world
In this life
You’re on your own
And if the elevator tries to bring you down
Go crazy

2016 continues to be a brutal year. First it was Lemmy. Then it was Bowie. Now the news that Prince has passed away at age 57 from unknown causes is breaking hearts across the country. According to multiple sources, and confirmed by the Associated Press, his body was discovered this morning in his Paisley Park home.

“It is with profound sadness that I am confirming that the legendary, iconic performer, Prince Rogers Nelson, has died at his Paisley Park residence this morning at the age of 57,” the pop pioneer’s publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure, said in a statement to the press. “There are no further details as to the cause of death at this time.”

Last Friday, Prince’s private plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Illinois as he was returning to the Twin Cities from two shows in Atlanta. Reportedly just sick from the flu, Prince showed off a new purple piano at a dance party at his home the following Saturday. He told the Star Tribune: “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers.”

“From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative.”

One of the most iconic and influential musicians in pop, Prince produced 39 studio albums and sold more than 100 million copies, making him one of the best-selling musicians of all time. He won seven Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe and an Academy Award.

“He rewrote the rulebook, forging a synthesis of black funk and white rock that served as a blueprint for cutting-edge music in the Eighties. Prince made dance music that rocked and rock music that had a bristling, funky backbone. From the beginning, Prince and his music were androgynous, sly, sexy and provocative. His colorful image and revolutionary music made Prince a figure comparable in paradigm-shifting impact to Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and George Clinton,” said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 2004.

Since the news broke of his passing, there has been an outpouring of love and grief. Minnesota Public Radio reporter Andrea Swensson, who was among dozens who gathered at Prince’s estate after hearing of a death, remarked that “even the journalists are hugging each other,” and President Obama also weighed in.

“Today, the world lost a creative icon.,” the President said. “Michelle and I join millions of fans from around the world in mourning the sudden death of Prince. Few artists have influenced the sound and trajectory of popular music more distinctly or touched quite so many people with their talent. As one of the most gifted and prolific musicians of our time, Prince did it all. Funk. R&B. Rock ‘n’ roll. He was a virtuoso instrumentalist, a brilliant bandleader, and an electrifying performer. ‘A strong spirit transcends rules,’ Prince once said — and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, his band, and all who loved him.”

After his sudden passing, fellow musicians have taken to Twitter to collectively mourn.

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Prince Rogers Nelson was born and raised in Minneapolis. While he was just 19 when he released his first album For You in 1978, it was the release of 1999 in 1982 that made him a superstar.

But it was Purple Rain, along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, that defined a generation in the ‘80s.

The 1984 classic featured a string of hit singles including “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” and sold more than 13 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. It also won Prince an Oscar for Best Soundtrack for the movie “Purple Rain,” which was loosely based on his life in Minneapolis.

Prince played the lead role of “The Kid,” and the movie featured his band the Revolution, which included guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboardists Matt Fink and Lisa Coleman, bassist Brown Mark and drummer Bobby Z.

Wendy and Lisa released this statement via Facebook:

“We are completely shocked and devastated by the sudden loss of our brother, artist and friend, Prince. Thank you to all the fans and supporters for your endless love, and for making such big dreams come true. We offer our love, support, and condolences to our extended family, friends and all fans of our sweet Prince.”

In addition to being known as one of the greatest musicians of all time, The Purple One also took on the music industry in the early ’90 during a contract dispute with his label Warner Bros. It was then that he became the “Love Symbol,” or, more commonly, “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Often appearing with the word “slave” written on his cheek, he gave the following statement at the time:

“The first step I have taken toward the ultimate goal of emancipation from the chains that bind me to Warner Bros. was to change my name from Prince to the Love Symbol. Prince is the name that my mother gave me at birth. Warner Bros. took the name, trademarked it, and used it as the main marketing tool to promote all of the music that I wrote. . . I became merely a pawn used to produce more money for Warner Bros. . . I was born Prince and did not want to adopt another conventional name. The only acceptable replacement for my name, and my identity, was the Love Symbol, a symbol with no pronunciation, that is a representation of me and what my music is about.”

After he was freed from his contract in 1999, he became Prince again in 2000.

Rest in Power, Prince.

Prince Dead at 57 originally published at Reverb on April 21, 2016

The Music of Nina Simone and Her Powerful, Beautiful Blackness

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Everybody is talking about High Priestess of Soul Nina Simone right now, but for all the wrong reasons.

Last month, the trailer for “Nina,” a biopic centered on a difficult part of the legend’s life, was released and all hell broke loose. Instead of honoring one of the most iconic black women musicians in American history, the film is instead mired in controversy over the casting of lightskinned actor Zoe Saldana as Simone.

“There are many Nina Simone fans and critics who have been looking for a public way to affirm her contribution to American culture and to the black freedom struggle because she’s been largely unrecognized,” says Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American Studies at Yale and a Nina Simone scholar. “To finally have that realized through this project seems to really disregard the politics of Nina’s very overt engagement with the politics of race and radical thinking around blackness.”

The trailer, featuring Saldana sporting a bad make-up job and a prosthetic nose, has Simone fans outraged. Not only have the filmmakers been accused of basically putting Saldana in blackface, Nina’s daughter Simone Kelly blames them for several inaccuracies. The biggest one, she says, is the misrepresentation of her mother’s relationship with her manager, Clifton Henderson.

“The project has been tainted from the very beginning,” she told CNN. “Clearly, it is not the truth about my mother’s life, and everyone now knows that.”

However, the fury and frustration around “Nina,” which hits theaters this Friday, throws a spotlight on larger and more uncomfortable questions of race and gender in Hollywood and in American culture. In a way, having these high-profile conversations in the mainstream (even The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates penned a column) is a fitting tribute to a woman whose blackness and preoccupation with racial justice profoundly informed her career in both public and private ways.

Strong Enough to Take the Pain

Simone rose to popularity in the late ‘50s and ‘60s when “girl groups” reigned supreme. Nina Simone didn’t look like Diana Ross, the kind of black female singer white audiences were willing to embrace. Her dark skin, wide nose and full lips were features disparaged everywhere – including the black community.

“We all have a story. My mother suffered. We can go all the way back to when she was a child and people told her her nose was too big, her skin was too dark, her lips were too wide,” Simone Kelly told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s very important the world acknowledges my mother was a classical musician whose dreams were not realized because of racism.”

But Simone’s story does not end there. To fans and black women across generations, she is a hero, a goddess. Her avant-garde elegance and grace defied conventions of beauty and flipped a middle finger to those who didn’t recognize it.

The Education of Nina Simone

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone started playing piano when she was three years old. Her mother was a preacher, so she began to play at church revival meetings at an early age. By the time she was seven, white music teacher Muriel Mazzanovich, who had heard Simone play at church, took a special interest in the little black girl who lived across the tracks. Mazzanovich began giving her classical piano lessons and eventually established a fund, putting together recitals to showcase Simone’s astounding talent.

With money from the Eunice Waymon Fund, Simone attended Juilliard School of Music for a year and a half. When the money ran out, she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down,” Simone later recalled. “And it took me about six months to realize that it was because I was black.”

It was then that Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone. To earn enough money to continue her classical piano education, she needed a side hustle. So Simone began playing at jazz clubs and changed her name so her pious mother wouldn’t find out.

Simone soon cultivated an impressive fan base and within a few years had a record deal. Her first major hit came in 1958 with an interpretation of “I Loves You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess. Simone used her voice to convey deep emotions – her distinctive, rich baritone sounded like no other – and her classical musical training was evident in hits like “Trouble in Mind” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

While she had explicitly avoided addressing the politics of race in her music, by the time the ‘60s rolled around, Simone felt compelled to take a stand. She had befriended members of the black intelligentsia, including Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael, who weren’t afraid to comment on the deep-rooted racism in Jim Crow-era America.

“Mississippi Goddam” was her response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black girls. While the Supreme’s Diana Ross was asking “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964, Simone was boldly telling white audiences “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies/ I don’t trust you anymore.” The song was banned in several southern states, and radio stations across the country stopped playing her music, returning boxes of the records cracked in half.

Writer and activist Dick Gregory calls out Simone’s courage in the Netflix documentary “What Happened Miss Simone,” which was released last year. “There’s something about a woman. If you look at all the suffering that black folks went through, not one black man would dare say, ‘Mississippi, Goddam,’ and then to have someone with her stature talking about your problems, you know how happy they had to be,” he said.

Simone as Civil Rights Activist

Performing civil rights anthems like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” gave Simone the reputation as the go-to for protest songs. She crossed police lines with black activists and performed “Mississippi Goddam” in front of 10,000 people at one of the Selma to Montgomery marches.

“It was very exhilarating to be a part of that movement at the time because I was needed,” she said in an interview featured in the Netflix documentary. “I could sing to help my people. And that became the mainstay of my life – not classical piano, not classical music and not even popular music, but civil rights music.”

Lord Have Mercy on this Land of Mine

But the inclusion of racial politics in her music took its toll. Soon Simone had trouble getting gigs in front of white audiences. Disillusioned, she fled to Barbados in 1970. Her career plunged into obscurity. It wasn’t until 1987 that she experienced somewhat of a resurgence with the re-release of her 1958 recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” which was used in a British television commercial for Chanel No. 5 perfume.

What would Nina say about the controversy surrounding her biopic? After all, as Coates points out, “… there is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic.” We don’t know, but her daughter Simone Kelly, who is also an actor and singer, says Saldana shouldn’t be the recipient of disappointed fans’ anger.

“It’s unfortunate that Zoe Saldana is being attacked so viciously when she is someone who is part of a larger picture,” she recently told Time. “It’s clear she brought her best to this project, but unfortunately she’s being attacked when she’s not responsible for any of the writing or the lies.”

She added: “There are many superb actresses of color who could more adequately represent my mother and could bring her to the screen with the proper script, the proper team and a sense of wanting to bring the truth of my mother’s journey to the masses. And ‘Nina,’ in my opinion, doesn’t do any of that.”

Yale’s Brooks says the controversy exemplifies the need to include more diverse perspectives in Hollywood. The team behind “Nina” is almost all white, according to Jezebel.

“We need to demand that filmmakers telling our stories are invested in and really well-versed in black history and black feminist theory,” she says. “And that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a woman of color filmmaker, although that’s absolutely necessary. But at the very least we need filmmakers who understand that study on these topics is necessary before even engaging in such a project.”

The Music of Nina Simone and Her Powerful, Beautiful Blackness was originally published at Reverb on April 18, 2016.

Country Music Legend Merle Haggard Dies at 79

Merle Haggard, one of the original country and western music outlaws, has died today, his birthday, at the age of 79.

Haggard’s more than 50-year career spawned almost 40 No. 1 hits and 70 albums. Along with Buck Owens, he is also one of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which merges Western swing, honky tonk, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.

“Merle Ronald Haggard remains, with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history,” said the Country Music Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1994.

Recently Haggard postponed his March tour after being hospitalized for pneumonia, which he had battled for months. The country star’s poor health had already led to several canceled concerts. Right before he nixed his February concert dates, Haggard told Rolling Stone about his fight with pneumonia:

“I had a pain that went all the way around from my belly button all the way around to my back. I asked the doctor, ‘What was that pain?’ He said it was death.”

Merle Haggard’s Early Years

Long known as a champion of the working man, Haggard’s music has almost always spoken up for the underdog – the convicts, drunks and losers of the world. “I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves,” he told GQ in 2012. “I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life.”

Merle Haggard in 1975
Merle Haggard in 1975

Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California. His parents, who moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, raised him in an old train boxcar that had been converted into a home. When he was 12 years old, Haggard’s older brother gave him a guitar, which he taught himself to play by listening to records.

Even though country musicians inspired him as a teenager, particularly Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. Haggard’s criminal record was a mile long – including such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks and grand theft auto – and he was in and out of jail throughout his teen years. When he wasn’t in jail, he was busy playing in local bars and clubs.

Haggard’s Prison Years and Beyond

All that bad behavior caught up with Haggard and in 1958 he was sent to San Quentin prison after being convicted of burglary and an attempt to escape from county jail. While he was locked up, serving a 15-year term, he saw Johnny Cash perform on New Year’s Day.

Merle Haggard Performing in June 2009
Merle Haggard Performing in June 2009

“He had the right attitude,” Haggard said of Cash. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”

Seeing Cash’s performance reportedly inspired Haggard to play country music and take high school equivalency courses. Haggard was later given a full pardon in 1972 by then-governor Ronald Reagan.

When he got out of prison in 1960, Haggard went back to Bakersfield and worked a day job digging ditches. At night he played lead guitar in a local band, and by 1962 he was on his way to Las Vegas – and a long and successful music career – to back singer Wynn Stewart. He signed with Tally Records and recorded his debut single “Sing a Sad Song,” which rose to No. 19 on the country charts. By 1965, Haggard had formed a band, The Strangers, and signed with Capitol Records. Later that year, the band released their debut self-titled album. In 1967 their single, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” hit the top of the country charts, followed by No. 1 “Branded Man.”

After a streak of No. 1 singles, Haggard released in 1969 his most famous – and controversial – song “Okie from Muskogee,” which celebrated patriotism and traditional values at a time when the Vietnam War was being vigorously protested by young people across the country.

“We were in a wonderful time in America and music was in a wonderful place. America was at its peak and what the hell did these kids have to complain about? These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers,” he once said.

Country Music Legend Merle Haggard Dies at 79 was originally published at Reverb on April 6, 2016.

Chronic Pain and the Working Musician

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Severe chronic pain has left Joshua Trost, guitarist for The Feral Americans, unable to perform publicly. “My hand problem has prevented us from even doing much practicing,” Trost says. “We’re pretty much in limbo right now because of it.”

Trost, 41, has played guitar since he was 13 years old. Three years ago, with no blood or drama, he debilitated his hand while unscrewing a speaker from a cabinet. “I had an overuse injury I made worse,” Trost says. “I couldn’t even hold a toothbrush or turn a doorknob after it happened. I’m certain that had I not played guitar, I would not have experienced the degree of injury that I did.”

As many as 80% of musicians suffer from playing-related pain, according to research.

Trost has good reason to believe his chronic pain is related to guitar playing. As many as 80% of musicians suffer from playing-related pain, according to a survey of 330 incoming freshman at a school of music conducted by the medical journal “Medical Problems of Performing Artists,” in 2009. And playing-related pain can begin early for musicians of all stripes.

Dr. Daniel Ivankovich, orthopedic surgeon, blues musician and cofounder of One Patient Global Health Initiative, a nonprofit that has treated more than 100,000 uninsured or underinsured patients in Chicago, says musicians should be concerned about preventing repetitive strain injury in their hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and back.

“Our whole philosophy, at least in my practice, is prevention,” says Ivankovich, who was recently named a 2015 Top 10 CNN Hero for his nonprofit work. “Repetitive and chronic wear-and-tear can absolutely be prevented in younger musicians by them just using their brain and thinking about how to save and preserve their body.”

Find a Fit

Most guitars were designed and built with right-handed men in mind, which may cause problems for lefties and those with smaller hands, Ivankovich says. So the first step in preventing injury is to make sure your instrument is fitted properly.

As a musician, you don’t just need to know your music, you need to know your physical requirements and limitations.

“There used to be very few choices, but these days there are actually lines of guitars that have been more fitted for women, making a body that is a little smaller, making a neck that is a little thinner and a little easier to play for small hands,” Ivankovich says, so find a guitar that fits you well and don’t settle for less. “If you’re struggling to play a guitar that doesn’t fit your hands, it is a setup for motion repetitive strain and associated injuries,” Ivankovich says. “As a musician, you don’t just need to know your music, you need to know your physical requirements and limitations. You need to be able express yourself in the most effortless kind of way,” he says.

Know Your Limits

Many musicians give themselves back and shoulder problems with poor posture while standing or sitting for hours while on stage, lugging around heavy equipment and practicing without breaks, Ivankovich explains, so knowing your physical limitations is important for avoiding injury.

In addition to making sure you are in good physical condition, he suggests doing warm-up and cool-down stretches; strengthening core muscles; taking frequent breaks and not sitting slumped over guitars slung between your knees. But, most of all, stop playing if you are in pain, Ivankovich says.

Trost reported that even before he injured his hand with the screwdriver, he endured hand pain and tingling after long hours of session work. “I was playing bass in a country cover band and their guitarist left. We were in the middle of recording sessions, so I got bumped up to play guitar,” he says. “When I was doing double duty, sometimes I would be playing for four hours two or three times a week. After those sessions, my left hand in particular would just be so sore,” he says.

Serves You Right to Suffer

After Trost injured his hand, he wore a brace for a month and did not play on the advice of an emergency room physician. After that month was over, he started playing again and developed a localized pain in the center of his palm, between the middle and ring fingers and the ring and pinkie area. In a perfect world, he would have seen a doctor. But like many musicians, playing gigs did not pay all the bills and Trost did not have health insurance. However, he has had some relief due to coverage via the Affordable Care Act.

Some guitar players will not see a doctor because they automatically assume a physician will recommend surgery, Ivankovich says. However, most respond well to therapy, scheduling and wearing a simple brace or splint to mitigate pain and can avoid going under the knife.

“With any sort of a hand or wrist symptoms, what we’ll do is try activity modification,” Ivankovich says. “Stop playing guitar for eight hours straight. Maybe break it up and play one hour at a time. If that doesn’t work, take a couple of days off and give it a rest. What we try to do is create a temporal history of when things are made worse, how they’re made better and then we’ll adjust the treatment plan accordingly.”

Meanwhile, as Trost waits for a diagnosis, he has adjusted how he plays. He has moved to lighter gauge strings and guitars with shorter scale necks, and the band has tuned down to lower string tension. “The message I’d leave with young musicians is that you may manage to secure your ideal guitars, amps and equipment, but they are all absolutely meaningless unless you can play them,” he says.

Flashback Friday: Chronic Pain and the Working Musician originally published at Reverb on Oct. 26, 2015