February 22, 1976: Florence Ballard of the Supremes dies
Talented, tragic Florence Ballard never got her due. As a founding member of the Motown sensations the Supremes, Ballard had the indisputable knock-out voice of the group; recording legend has it that she was made to stand almost 20 feet away from her microphone when she sang, just to save others' ears from her powerful pipes.
As the Supremes began to take off, Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy decided to pivot the group around the pleasant, less dramatic Diana Ross, and she became the lead singer (whereas she had often demurred to Ballard in the past). Ballard and Gordy butted heads constantly, and he fired her from the group in 1967. Ballard attempted a solo career that never ignited, and unsuccessfully sued Motown for unpaid royalties in 1971, but she lived out her last days on welfare with her children in Detroit. She died of cardiac arrest and coronary thrombosis in 1976, at age 32. Her story was later thinly fictionalized in the musical Dreamgirls.
February 20, 1991: Bob Dylan receives the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys and delivers a perplexing speech
Thirty years (and one month) after Robert Zimmerman arrived in Greenwich Village, New York, and changed the world's folk landscape, he was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1991 Grammy Awards. During the ceremony, he sang his vitriolic song "Masters of War" (from 1963's The Freewheeling Bob Dylan), a pointed protest of the Gulf War, and was then presented the award by Jack Nicholson as his esteemed musical peers applauded wildly.
His speech was cryptic, to say the least. In accepting his industry's highest honor, he said (in entirety): "Well, my daddy, he didn't leave me much, you know he was a very simple man, but what he did tell me was this, he did say: 'Son,' he said. He say, 'You know it's possible to become so defiled in this world that your own father and mother will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your ability to mend your ways.'"
Then he snatched the trophy and exited the stage. The words were later identified by Dylan biographer Seth Rogovoy as a loose paraphrase of Psalm 27; its faithful recitation traditionally precedes Yom Kippur.
February 19, 1996: Björk attacks a reporter in Bangkok
Until her paparazzi smack-down in 1996 – a prescient move in pop culture, like so much of her music – Björk was widely perceived as a sort of benevolent, wildly eccentric art sprite. The musician had been a star in her native Iceland for much of her life, first with the electro-pop group the Sugarcubes and then through her haunting, nuanced solo fare.
In 1996, though, Björk showed a ferocious side to the media when reporters converged upon her at Bangkok International Airport. She had just completed a long flight with her son, Sindri, and later claimed that reporters had pestered him with intrusive questions. However, the reporter whom Björk assaulted had merely told her, "Welcome to Bangkok," after which the singer jumped on her and knocked her to the ground.
Björk later insisted that the reporter, Julie Kaufman, had been harassing the singer and her family for days. She apologized to Kaufman, though, and no charges were filed.
February 20, 2004: Brian Wilson premieres Smile at London's Royal Festival Hall
The most famous lost album in rock & roll, Smile was the audacious symphony of Beach Boys lead songwriter Brian Wilson and also the effective end of the band's golden age. Recorded in 1966-1967, with some of the most avant-garde technology and ideas of the Sixties, it was scrapped before it could be completed; two intended tracks from it, "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains," were released as hit singles, but the conceptual album was halted by Wilson's increasing mental problems and some of the other band members' displeasure with the experimental direction.
In the early 2000s, Brian Wilson and his erudite Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks reunited to complete the album. Along with Wilson's personal backing band, they debuted the long-awaited final product at London's Royal Festival Hall, and the premiere earned rave reviews; the audience's standing ovation lasted nearly five minutes (including cheers from attendees Paul McCartney and George Martin). Inspired, Wilson rerecorded the material and released it as a solo album, Brian Wilson Presents Smile, which won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance (for "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"). The original Sixties Smile sessions were released in 2011 and this year, the surviving members of the classic 1960s Beach Boys lineup will take to the road on a lengthy 50th anniversary tour.
Interestingly, Wilson's Royal Festival Hall premiere of Smile synced up perfectly with another Beach Boys milestone; forty years earlier, to the day, the Beach Boys recorded one of their loveliest and most enduring hits, "Don't Worry Baby."
February 24, 2004: After EMI blocks the release of The Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse releases the album as a free download for one day
Danger Mouse is hot to trot nowadays – as one half of Gnarls Barkley, he's released the successful alt-soul albums St. Elsewhere and The Odd Couple, and as an in-demand producer, he's helmed projects by everyone from Beck to the Gorillaz. But thanks to one record label, the world almost missed his career-making work, The Grey Album.
One of the earliest projects by Danger Mouse (a/k/a Brian Burton), The Grey Album was a brilliant mash-up of a capella takes of Jay-Z's The Black Album mixed over beats worked from samples of the Beatles' "White Album." In a lesser producer's hands, the idea would have been a gimmick; in Danger Mouse's, it leant new emotional significance to each artist involved and created a complete, inspired album. However, EMI Records didn't agree; they attempted to block Danger Mouse's intended limited release of 3,000 copies, even though both Jay-Z and Paul McCartney had no problem with their music being used in the project.
Frustrated and maintaining that his samples were worked in fair use, Danger Mouse struck back with "Grey Tuesday" in February 2004. He partnered with the internet activist group Downhill Battle to release copies of the Grey Album online in widespread distribution, but only for one day. It was a defiant cause that approximately 170 websites took up with him, and over 100,000 copies were downloaded that day.
"Grey Tuesday" and its success propelled The Grey Album into cult infamy. Critics followed soon, anointing it with scores of year-end honors, and artists rushed to create their own discordant pop mashes. Soon, mash-ups were mainstream.
Last week: U2 Rocks a Kmart