Leonard Hits High Notes

Published February 27, 2015 in Senior Digest

Before even cutting his first record, little did Pawtucket’s George Leonard realize that he would help set legal precedents for student dress codes as well as ultimately make it into the rock ‘n’ roll history books and now, in 2015, into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF).

When Leonard’s family relocated to nearby Attleboro in 1964, the young high school student was tossed out on the first day of school for having a “Beatle-length” haircut. Already an established professional musician, Leonard filed a freedom of expression lawsuit against the School Department, which dragged on through several appeals and wound up in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Although the court finally sided with the School Department, it was too late.

“This was a landmark case. Students all over the country, following George’s example, began demanding their right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Long hair became the order of the day,” said Rick Bellaire, RIMHOF vice chair and archive director.

The teenager deftly capitalized on the intense interest generated by the internationally publicized lawsuit, which brought his band, Georgie Porgie & The Cry Babies, onto the thriving New York City discotheque scene of the mid-1960s.

The popularity of the band led to two national releases for Jubilee Records. After the Cry Babies ran its course, Leonard composed and produced the controversial rock opera, “Bozo.”   He later, under his alter-ego, “Commander Video,” became a cable TV pioneer on the blossoming performance art scene in New York City in the 1970s.

Although the 67-year-old musician resides in Bristol, he still strongly feels his connections to Pawtucket. “I only perform for my friends these days,” says Leonard, admitting that he enjoys playing jazz much more than rock ‘n’ roll and blues.

Looking back, Leonard says that passion never pushed him into the music business. Practically speaking, “It was always easy for me to play music and I enjoyed writing songs,” he said.

According to Bellaire, Leonard will be inducted into the RIMHOF with The Schemers/Raindogs, Brenda Bennett, Nelson Eddy, George Masso, George Wein, Duke Belaire, Paco Zimmer, The Others and The Ascots (recognizing the great Rhode Island garage bands of the ‘60s along with Leonard), Bob Petteruti, Marty Ballou and Marty Richards (in the new “MVP sideman award” category).

“The Music Hall of Fame initiative,” says Bellaire, “provides a great opportunity to not only acknowledge Rhode Island’s musical greats and celebrate their achievements, but to finally have an organization whose primary goal is to promote and preserve Rhode Island’s rich musical heritage in all its forms. With actual exhibit space, coupled with our online archive, we have in place the tools to curate and showcase the best of Rhode Island’s musical artistry.”

This year, Bellaire said, there will be two induction ceremonies, and 11 more displays will be unveiled to celebrate inductees. Eventually, the museum will have more than 100 displays as well as memorabilia and interactive components.

The induction of jazz musicians will take place on April 20 at 7 p.m. at Bovi’s Tavern, 287 Taunton Ave., East Providence, before the weekly performance by the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra. George Masso, Bob Petteruti and Duke Belaire, the founder of the Bovi’s big band, will be honored.

On April 26, there will be an induction ceremony and concert at The MET and Hall of Fame within Hope Artiste Village, 999 Main St., Pawtucket. An afternoon event will include the unveiling of the inductee exhibits as well as performances by The Schemers, Raindogs, Brenda Bennett, The Ascots, TheOthers and an all-star jam session led by two of this year’s MVP sideman award winners — Ballou and Richards.

The 2 p.m. unveiling is free, but a ticket will be required for entrance to the 3 p.m. concert in the MET. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door and can be purchased atwww.RhodeIslandMusicHallofFame.com

Robert Billington, chair of the RIMHOF, said, “This year’s class of inductees is especially amazing due to the variety of music styles and musical periods that we are recognizing. The thousand Saturday nights that these musicians spent on the road throughout their careers will be recognized this April as their colleagues throughout Rhode Island stand to applaud their successes.

“Our induction ceremony … has become the place for a ‘who’s who in Rhode Island music,” he said. “The Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame Induction ceremony and concert is the place to be and be seen at as we continue to showcase the history of Rhode Island’s musical heroes.”

Bellaire noted, “In past years, we’ve been delighted to induct many senior members of Rhode Island’s music community. For instance, last year The Mark II – Wayne Cogswell and Ray Peterson who are both in their 80s — were on hand to accept their awards and perform, and Rhode Island Philharmonic founder Francis Madeira at 97 came all the way down from Maine to accept his award during a philharmonic performance at The Vets.

“This year, we will be honored to have some of the most senior inductees with us,” he continued, “… all of whom are still active participants on the music scene, including drummer/band leader Duke Belaire (83), bassist/educator Bob Petteruti (85), trombonist/educator George Masso (88), and Newport Jazz and Folk festival founder George Wein (89).”

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based writer. Contact him at hweissri@aol.com.

 

Rockers Hendrix and Joplin Honored with USPS Stamp

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 28, 2014

Miriam R. Plitt, like many of the baby boomer generation were  ecstatic with the announcing by the United States Postal Service (USPS) of its unveiling of a new line of commemorative stamps, including music culture icons. These stamps will be sold as forever stamps and are good for mailing first class letters at that price any time in the future even if stamps price increase, she says.

The long-time Oak Hill resident was elated that two of her 60s favorites, Jimi Hendrix, on of the most celebrated guitarists in the 20th century and legendary singer and songwriter Janis Joplin, who pushed their way into the public psyche at the Woodstock festival at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskills near the hamlet of White Lake in the town of Bethel, New York, made the cut.

“Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix reaches my soul, they speak to me,” notes Plitt, who chairs Pawtucket’s Advisory Commission on Arts and Culture, who grew up loving Rock and Roll when this musical style became entrenched in her generation. “Any time I hear these musicians, I just go into my own world and dance,” she says.

“Joplin and Hendrix are not artists that came onto the nation’s musical scene and left,” she observed, but they have had an impact on preceding generations even setting high standards for other musicians who came after them.

Now in her mid-sixties, Plitt notes that this is a terrific honor for her generation, having musicians that her contemporaries listened to growing up to be placed on a first class postage stamp.

Pushing the Musical Boundaries with His Guitar

According to Mark Saunders, USPS spokesman, this month, the Jimi Hendrix stamp will be released on March 13 at the South By Southwest Concert in Austin, Texas and available nationwide that day.  It’s a natural venue for Jimi Hendrix fans to purchase the stamp, he says.

            According to the USPS’s bio on Hendrix (19421970), the musician was considered to be one of the most influential electric guitarists in the history of popular music, this being a key factor for the honor of being selected by the USPS.

            Combining influences from rock, modern jazz, soul, and the blues with his own innovations, the legendary Hendrix created a unique style that influenced musical guitarist of his era and continues to inspire musicians well into the 21st century.

            As shown at Woodstock, Hendrix pushed the boundaries of what his guitar could do, manipulating various devices to produce sounds that could be loud—the quintessential psychedelic music—or melodic and gentle. A master at the controlled use of distortion and feedback, he expanded the instrument’s vocabulary in a way that had never been heard before—or since.

While Hendrix is remembered as one of the most innovative guitar players of all time, he was also a gifted songwriter, combining visionary, sometimes haunting imagery with deft pop hooks.

            Rolling Stone ranked Hendrix #1 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, and #6 on its list of the 100 greatest artists of all time. His band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992 and the U.K. Music Hall of Fame in 2005. The band’s first album, Are You Experienced, is considered by many critics to be one of the best rock albums of all time, and in 2005, the Library of Congress selected it for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.”

In 1993, Hendrix was awarded a posthumous Grammy for lifetime achievement.

Through Hendrix’s mastery of the guitar and use of controlled feedback as a melodic element, he revolutionized and redefined popular music. His music sounds as innovative and fresh today as when it was first released, winning legions of new fans who just might by commemorative stamps with his image.

Bluesy Voice Propelled Her to the Top

Joplin (1943-1970), an icon of the 1960s whose bluesy voice propelled her to the pinnacle of rock stardom, gets her image on a stamp, too. Her stamp will be issued later in 2014.

When announcing the issuance of the Joplin stamp, the USPS detailed her musical track record, too.  Joplin broke onto the national music scene with an explosive performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Known for her rebellious public persona, Joplin roared and wailed her way through uninhibited, soulful performances.

Her time at the top, however, was very brief. She recorded only two hit albums and performed at the Woodstock concert, but in October 1970, just three years after she became a star, she died at the age of 27 of a drug overdose. The album she was recording at the time of her death, Pearl, went on to cement her reputation as one of the premier white blues singers of all time. “Me and Bobby McGee,” written by Kris Kristofferson, became a number one hit.

As the years passed, Joplin’s legacy was increasingly recognized by critics. She was inducted into the Cleveland, Ohio-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. Rolling Stone included Joplin on its list of 100 Greatest Artists. Some of her most popular songs include “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Cry Baby.”

Washington Posts Reporter Lisa Rein reported in a February 21 article that while stamp designs for both Hendrix and Joplin were scheduled for 2014, other pop and music icons were selected for 2015 and beyond. Specifically, Rein’s commemorative stamp listing also included Beatle John Lennon, NBA Basket Ball player Wilt Chamberlain, celebrity chiefs, recording artist and musician James Brown, late night talk show host, Johnny Carson.  She noted that the USPS even was considering the reissuing of Elvis Presley stamp.

However, USPS Spokesperson Saunders, stated that while Hendrix and Joplin are confirmed for release this year, the others cited by Rein are only being considered at this time, subject to change and most certainly not finalized.  “We may or may not move forward with these stamps,” he says.

            Yes, there is controversy even in the world of stamps.  When hearing that Beatle John Lennon might be honored by having his image on a stamp, collectors voiced their opposition and concerns.  Traditionally, only Americans subjects have been selected, they say.  But, Saunders explains that the USPS has the discretion to select subjects that have made a significant impact to American society and culture, citing examples of Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill. This opens the door to John Lennon’s consideration, he says.

            Bringing more relevant stamps reflecting popular pop culture icons to market is a way to attract younger buyers and increase USPS revenues, notes Saunders.  “With 300 million customers across the nation, our diverse stamp program has something to offer everybody,” he adds.

Saunders notes that “We receive over 40,000 suggestions of subjects on stamps each year.” Many people suggest the inclusion of Rock stars on stamps.  Most certainly, “Joplin and Hendrix will appeal to fans of Rock music from the 60s and 70s,” he says.

            Will Joplin and Hendrix’s commemorative stamps be a big hit with the American public?  It’s a mixed bag says, Ken Martin, Executive Director of the American Philatelic Society,” a nonprofit group representing 34,000 stamp collectors, educators and postal historians in 110 countries.  “Some collectors feel that people commemorated on stamps should be without flaws,” he says, noting that some might just not agree with Hendrix or Joplin’s music style or the way they lived.  However, others might just love them.

            But Martin concedes that “a little bit of controversy adds to promotion of the released stamp and may well increases sales.”  He recognizes that the USPS is broadening the scope of the diverse stamp program to reach out to a broader section of the population.

            Countering the concerns of collectors who may well frown upon the USPS issuing stamps of people with nontraditional or controversial lifestyles, like Hendrix and Joplin, Rick Bellaire, Vice Chair of the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame, has another take on it.

            Bellaire says that the sudden deaths of Hendrix and Joplin, especially coming as they did [from drug overdoses], one after the other in the Fall of 1970, “were a great blow to the music world.” These musicians were “such giants that there could never be anyone to replace them nor carry on their work,” he says, noting that their “highly original styles promoted deep Rhythm & Blues to the young, white masses in the guise of psychedelic Rock ’n’ Roll while always making sure the audience knew the source material.”

            “I am proud of the U.S. Postal Service for honoring these two masters, judging them not by their personal lives and lifestyles, but by their groundbreaking work as musicians and their generosity of spirit,” says Bellaire.

            For more information on submitting to the USPS your suggestion for a stamp design, go to http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/leadership/stamp-advisory-committee.htm.