This week in rock history, Joan Baez headlined the inaugural Monterey Folk Festival, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece, Elton John toured the USSR, boy-band mogul Lou Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison and metal god Ronnie James Dio passed away.
May 17, 1963: Joan Baez headlines the first Monterey Folk Festival
The tiny, idyllic Northern California town of Monterey was once the stomping ground for Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and many more of the most influential singer-songwriters of their generation. Without the Monterey Folk Festival, the modern rock fest may never have come to fruition. The inaugural event was just brazen enough to work – it spanned three days at the county fairgrounds in Monterey and was headlined by Baez. The lineup also boasted Dylan’s West Coast debut, though when it came to the billing, "folk" was a bit of a misnomer. Protest folk was proving increasingly popular by the spring of 1963 — a trend Dylan capitalized on during his set with a legendary take on “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” his frustrated eulogy of racial politics and the murder of black civil rights advocate Medgar Evers — but blues and gospel artists also factored heavily into the Monterey bill. Performers included Peter Paul & Mary, Mance Lipscomb, the New Lost City Ramblers and the Greenbriar Boys, among others. In 1967, the Monterey Folk Festival was replaced by the Monterey Pop Festival, the bacchanalian rock camp meeting that properly introduced the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who and Janis Joplin to American audiences. It served as a major template for all festivals to come.
May 16, 1966: The Beach Boys release Pet Sounds
Not many American rock bands survived the mop-topped hordes of the 1964 British Invasion, but the Beach Boys endured — perhaps they knew presciently that their masterpiece was soon to come. It arrived in 1966, while America was still in the thrall of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and was met by many dubious ears, including those in the band: When group mastermind Brian Wilson played rough cuts of the songs, singer Mike Love derided them as music for dogs, inadvertently inspiring the title. Pet Sounds was a glorious, heart-rending experience, one miles away from the SoCal surf dudes’ previous happy-go-lucky pop. In somber, rich symphonics, Wilson exposed the deep pain of growing up, confessing his conflict wistfully in “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” and “Caroline, No.” Yet he conveyed wonderment, his true gift, in the swoon of “God Only Knows” and “You Still Believe in Me” — and, in doing so, captured the timeless complexity of living romantically. Despite initially lackluster sales, Pet Sounds has since been embraced as the Beach Boys’ most enduring and acclaimed record. However, a few fans recognized the genius of the record instantly: The Beatles cited it as the inspiration for their own magnum opus, 1967's Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the lone record to top Pet Sounds in Rolling Stone’s "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list.
May 21, 1979: Elton John starts an eight-date tour of Russia
Three years after Elton John announced his retirement from the road, he reversed it with an unprecedented move: an eight-date tour of the Soviet Union, making him the first solo Western rock artist ever to tour the then-USSR. The decision followed a creative nadir for John: After releasing a string of successful albums in the Seventies (especially 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and 1974’s Caribou), his 1978 offering, A Single Man, charted poorly in the States and sold under expectations. John’s tour of the USSR was a sensation in the international press and a needed boost to his flagging year. It inspired a tour documentary, To Russia With Elton, and his performance at the Rossya Hall in Moscow was broadcast live on BBC Radio One back home in England. He was accompanied by percussionist Ray Cooper, another popular British draw; their performances were allegedly attended mostly by Communist Party members instead of the general citizenry of Russia, which John expressed dismay over when he returned to the U.K., but the concerts were a groundbreaking move nonetheless.
May 21, 2008: Lou Pearlman is sentenced to 25 years in prison for running Ponzi scheme
Whenever Lou Pearlman writes his inevitable autobiography, he’d do well to title it Quit Playing Games (With My Money). The record company mogul who created the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync operated more than a few shady transactions during the boy-band heyday of the late 1990s/early 2000s — in fact, he ran a decades-long financial ploy that cheated investors out of more than $300 million, for which he was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. According to a plea agreement Pearlman signed before his sentencing, his nearly 2,000 investors were conned into pouring their money into two phony “shell” companies that served the crux of an extensive Ponzi scheme. To support his scam, the Orlando, Florida-based Pearlman fabricated financial statements from a nonexistent accounting firm. Pearlman’s final sentencing came two months after he pladed guilty to counts of conspiracy, money laundering and making false bankruptcy claims. He was 53 at the time of his conviction, and he currently remains incarcerated at Texarkana Federal Prison.
May 16, 2010: Ronnie James Dio dies
Ronnie James Dio, linchpin of metal outfits Black Sabbath, Dio, and Rainbow, was a predatory force of hard rock. Revered for his complex, operatic vocals, he wailed about rebellion and rock & roll with satanic glee — and, not coincidentally, was the popular force behind the popular “devil horn” hand gesture as we know it. Born Ronald James Padavona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Dio cut his teeth in the rock band Elf before replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath. He fronted the monolithic rockers from 1979 to 1982, when he left in favor of his own group, Dio. His eponymous band's 1983 debut, Holy Diver, was a metal sensation, and its title track remains the singer’s best-known anthem. Dio remained the group’s lone constant member through several active decades, and in 2008 he joined his Black Sabbath bandmates Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Vinny Appice to tour under the moniker Heaven & Hell, the title of their first joint album in the group. He also had a memorable cameo 2006’s Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny as a poster that comes to life (and behooves all to go forth and rock, of course). Dio passed away at age 67 following a six-month battle with stomach cancer. The Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund operates in his memory.