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.

Like the Energizer Bunny, Steve Smith & The Nakeds Keep Going…

Published in the Pawtucket Times, April 5, 2013

          Following months of speculation, The Rolling Stones have announced their upcoming 50th anniversary tour leaving many fans in awe of their continued energy, stamina and staying power. And like the venerable British rockers, Rhode Island’s own Steve Smith & The Nakeds, currently celebrating their 40th anniversary, have also proven their staying power as they continue to enjoy a full touring schedule and an ever-growing fan base.

 Fondly called simply “The Nakeds” by their legion of fans, this band of middle-aged musicians operate just like the Energizer Bunny – they keep going, and going, and going… 

         The band began in 1973 as Naked Truth and Steve Smith and the 62 other guys who have passed through the band’s ranks are among just a handful of Rhode Island musicians who can claim that milestone. (They became The Nakeds in 1981 to avoid confusion with a Long Island band also called Naked Truth; the word “truth” remains with them to this day “hidden” within their logo.)

          In recognition of their success and their impact on the Rhode Island music scene, on Sunday, April 28, 2013, Steve Smith & The Nakeds will be among the nine new inductees into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame (RIMHOF).

 The Younger Years 

         Looking back, Smith clearly remembers a Saturday night tradition in his family – a musical talent show – when he and others would perform in front of the refrigerator. The sixty-one-year old’s singing career began at his family-built seaside retreat on Carpenter’s Beach in scenic Matunuck, Rhode Island, where as a four year old, he would sing Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” to his family and friends.  

           At the tender age of seven, Smith’s father, recognizing his son’s growing vocal range, enrolled him in classical voice training.  In 1964, the elder Smith, a traveling salesman who loved to listen to the radio while on the road, knew talent when he heard it and gave his teenaged son a newly released album, “Meet the Beatles,” and told him, “These guys are gonna be great and I want you to listen to them.”  His father’s sage advice ultimately led young Smith to form his first band with his cousin, John Cafferty. The newly formed rock group of junior high students, The Nightcrawlers, would go on to win a Battle of the Bands contest held in Smithfield area in the late 1960s, beating out several established and seasoned college-aged bands. (Steve’s cousin John would find fame in the 1980s with his band Beaver Brown’s score for the motion picture “Eddie and The Cruisers.”)

 The Long Journey

         Looking back, Smith, a 1973 graduate of ProvidenceCollege, never thought he would still be performing  in his sixties. As the group’s band leader recently noted, “We figured we would keep playing as long as the phone kept ringing.” And that it did!  

        During the band’s early years, Smith remarks that business was booming. He had a jam-packed calendar of bookings at concerts, clubs, and special events.  However, in 1984, lawmakers reinstated the 21 year old drinking age and the band saw its bookings dwindle.  “We went from playing seven days a week to only performing on weekends,” he said.   

         But, Smith would put his hard earned College education in graphic design to very good use, a career that would ultimately help him to survive the lean economic times.  

         According to the life-long Smithfield resident, his band’s longevity and success was tied to the “high caliber of the musicians who played in the group” throughout its four decades. Smith’s strong vocals, combined with a five-piece horn section and a guitar, keyboards, bass and drums rhythm section, gave The Nakeds its own unique style of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rhythm & Blues.

         The Nakeds fame began to spread after the release of their first album in 1984, “Coming To A Theatre Near You,” and they appeared on MTV’s  “Basement Tapes.” They signed on with Miller Beer’s “Rock Network” promotion as one of the best unsigned bands in the country and were featured on a RCA Records compilation album.

        Over the years, Smith and the band often shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen’s saxophonist, the late Clarence Clemons, mounting a series of critically acclaimed national tours which included a 1994 appearance with President Bill Clinton at his health rally at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. Clarence and another E Street band member, Nils Lofgren, contributed heavily to the band’s best-selling 2000 album, “Never Say Never.”

          In 2009, the band’s 1984 indie hit, “I’m Huge (and the Babes Go Wild)” was featured on the DVD for the sixth season of “The Family Guy.” The often-controversial Fox Network cartoon, which takes place in the fictitious town of Quahog, Rhode Island, would immortalize the group when a YouTube posting of the video went viral and the group were offered a Sony Records deal. The “I’m Huge” album, a best-of compilation from their earlier releases, became the biggest selling album of their career. The video remains a fan favorite and is approaching 400,000 views.

          Steve Smith & The Nakeds will take their place among Rhode Island’s musical greats when they are inducted on April 28th into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame as members of the Class of 2013. RIMHOF Vice Chair and Archive Director Rick Bellaire has this to say about the band. “With a new album, “Under The Covers,” just out and a full schedule of shows on the horizon, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Nakeds will be around to help us celebrate the Class of 2023 during their 50th anniversary tour! We are extremely proud to honor them with this induction and they are stoked to pull out all the stops for their induction concert on the 28th.”

 Introducing the other 2013 Inductees:

        In announcing RIMHOF’s Class of 2013, Bellaire notes that “sometimes it’s easy to forget, and it may be hard to believe, that such world-acclaimed artists actually have roots right here in Rhode Island just like the rest of us.”

          Bellaire says, “For the smallest state, Rhode island has produced an inordinately large number of truly great, successful and important artists,” and that their devoted local fans helped to place them on the word stage.

         Bellaire adds some of his thoughts about the other new RIMHOF inductees: 

        Cowsills – A family band in the truest sense of the term – six siblings and their

mom! They sang their way out of Newport all the way to the top of the charts.

(The Cowsills were feature in my January 25, 2013 Commentary.)

         George M. Cohan – The pivotal figure in the development of the modern Broadway theater tradition grew up in Fox Point;

         Sissieretta Jones – One of the greatest sopranos in the history of modern opera headquartered and managed her career from Pratt Street on the East Side of Providence;

         Bill Flanagan – A guy from Warwick who went from writing about music in all of our local papers to editing Musician Magazine and then became the Vice-President of MTV and VH-1, but continued to promote and advocate for Rhode Island music along the way;

        Jimmie Crane – From the 1950s through the ’70s, he wrote a long string of huge hit songs for such stars as Eddie Fisher, Doris Day and Elvis Presley, all the while maintaining a successful jewelry manufacturing business in his hometown of Providence and assisting dozens of up-and-coming musicians;

         Bobby Hacket – Bobby was born on Federal Hill, but spent most of his youth in Olneyville where the action really was: Jake E. Conn’s Olympia Theatre and Petteruti’s Twin City Music store. He became one of the greatest – and most acclaimed- improvisors in the history of jazz;

        Eddie Zack & The Hayloft Jamboree – The Zackarian family of Providence virtually introduced Country & Western music into Rhode Island and the Northeast at large, recording for Decca and Columbia Records and broadcasting nationwide on the NBC radio network, but always maintained their home and headquarters right here in Rhode Island;

         Paul Geremia – The world-acclaimed acoustic artist, who has not only helped keep the folk-blues tradition alive, but has brought it into the modern era with his unique guitar style and voice, grew up in SilverLake!  

         “As the organization grows,” RIMHOF Chair Robert Billington says, “the Hall of Fame will be committed to developing programs and services aimed at promoting and strengthening Rhode Island’s musical heritage and ensuring that music continues to play an important role in the lives of all Rhode Islanders.”

         Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door for the evening ceremony event and $10.00 in advance or at the door for the afternoon ceremony event. The Cowsills and other inductees will perform. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.rhodeislandmusichalloffame.com.

         Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.   He also serves on RIMHOF’s Board of Directors.