With Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton both releasing new albums, it's apparent that music legends can live forever. Either by producing new music or having an estate that knows how to keep the legend alive, so to speak.
In order to qualify for this list, the music legend needed to accrue 25 years, or in Social Security terms 100 quarters of service. Which is why, sadly, Elvis Presley, did not make the list. He began his career in 1954 and died in 1977, just two years shy of a gold watch. Poor Hank Williams Sr. only had roughly a six-year career and other notables such as Bob Marley, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, John Coltrane all obviously fell short.
To keep my sanity, I also excluded guys primarily known for their work in bands. So Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Jimmy Page...were all excluded. Maybe you enjoyed Outrider, but most people think of Page as the guitar player in Led Zeppelin.
I kept Brian Wilson off the list, since he has spent much of his career on the disabled list and while his many hardcore fans cherish his solo work, unfortunately for him, the work that created his legend is booked under the name Beach Boys and as much as we admire his work, the list can only be 25.
George Clinton, it could be argued, should have been excluded from the list as well, since his best work was done as Parliament-Funkadelic, but his cumulative years of active duty were taken into account. Whereas Chuck Berry is all about active duty. The man never made many "new" albums after his first round of output, but he's never stopped touring the country. Michael Jackson got cut for spending too much time in Disneyland and not enough time in the recording studio or on stage. Jerry Lee Lewis, Pete Seeger and Tom Waits all just missed the cut-off, but, it should be noted, are no less legendary. Eric Clapton's seat was given to B.B. King. We think Eric would agree.
I didn't know what to do with Madonna. Though I know she's more than a marketing whiz and a manipulator of public profile and her music has showed more dare than many on this list, I can't bump Neil Diamond or Dollly Parton on her behalf. Feel free to do so on your own list. (I wanted to put Randy Newman on this list, but as readers of this fine blog know, the Y! Music Police have filed a grievance against what they're calling, my "Overuse Of Newman.")
And Frank Sinatra is a genre unto himself.
Well, let's get to it.
25) George Clinton: Usually the musicians who look the freakiest are trying to hide the fact that they're actually not very good. Because as you'll see on this list, very few legends do more than sing and play legendarily. Clinton, however, was a showman. And he pioneered a whole new funky way of being. And he had Eddie Hazel on guitar. That helped. But with a name like George Clinton, he could've been President. But he wouldn't cut his hair.
24) B.B. King: One of the great blues guitarists and a man who has practically lived on the stage. Despite his health concerns, BB played on, performing a "Farewell Tour" in 2006 that remains to be seen if it will be his actual final stand. At 82, it's not like we're expecting him to behave like The Who.
23) Merle Haggard: Though Merle Haggard will be remembered as a country music artist, he's about as close to rock 'n' roll as a country musician can go without acting crossing over the line. Before Peter Frampton, Kiss and any opportunist who ever played "At Budokan" made a live album to commemorate their accomplishment and to sell their back catalog a second time, Haggard made his Okie From Muskogee album and its follow-up The Fightin' Side Of Me as live albums that captured a band that actually justified the making of live albums.
22) Elvis Costello: David Lee Roth said rock critics like Elvis Costello because they all look like him. Well, I don't actually wear glasses. I use them as a disguise so I don't get mobbed at the mall when I'm trying to navigate the food court. Such is fame. Costello's latest album Momofuku is actually pretty good. While his first decade and a half in the business was artistically very strong, it seemed as if he then decided to consciously see how many dull and uninspired albums he could string together. It's as if he listened to Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait and figured a way to do that one repeatedly. Genius is weird that way.
21) Loretta Lynn: Johnny Cash had Rick Rubin. Loretta Lynn got Jack White. Whatever it takes to get people from one generation to notice another can't be all bad. It's kind of fun actually. And if having Sissy Spacek play you in a movie that makes your life look like tragic and epic, well, maybe it is. It beats having your life look like an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond.
20) Frank Zappa: Frank Zappa recorded something like 547 albums--half of which consist of guitar solos. The way some people document their lives with blogs (and be thankful I never tell you people what I've been having for breakfast), Zappa once documented his life on magnetic recording tape. It's as if he started each day with a fresh reel of tape and the kind of overactive imagination that makes a kid fail high school. Teachers don't like kids who think outside the box. And especially not those who design their own box.
19) David Bowie: Of course a man with two different colored eyes would make this list, if only for appearance's sake. Besides, I've slighted poor Bowie in the past. I've even forgiven him Tin Machine. And Tin Machine II. If he tries Tin Machine III, someone please stop him. If he does decide to repeat himself, why not Ziggy Stardust II? Or Hunky Dory II? Or, heck, Lodger II?
18) Dolly Parton: I have a recording of Dolly singing a song called "Girl Left Alone" that the DJ identified as coming from a time when Dolly could be no more than a teenager. It's one of the rawest, most amazing recordings I've ever heard. She already had what it takes before her career had even happened. From there, she became a mini-city all her own. It's Dollyworld; we just pay to live in it.
17) Aretha Franklin: What I love most about Aretha Franklin is how she'll let out one of her patented screams just when you least expect it. I had a cat that used to do that and he caused me to leap out of my chair in spine-tingling fear. Aretha's quite a bit more musical than my old cat, which is why she made this list and Leon didn't. That and "I Never Loved A Man" is about as perfect a song as you can imagine. We'll forgive her "Freeway Of Love," a song, I am told, that some people actually listen to for pleasure. And that won a Grammy. Whatever you say.
16) Brian Eno: Who doesn't love the idea of showing up for a recording session and receiving an index card with a set of vague instructions on it? Who doesn't love the idea of sitting in a room with a blackboard where two columns are set up, one for words representing "Old U2" and ones for "New U2." Anytime afterwards, if you're caught making a sound that falls under the "Old U2" heading, the track is erased and you're made to sit in the corner and think about what you've done. It worked for Achtung, Baby! Make it work for you.
15) Al Green: Al Green is one of those great singers where writers trot out the idea that he could even sing the phone book and make it sound good. I wouldn't go that far. No one can sing the telephone book. Hopefully, no one will ever try.
14) Stevie Wonder: Of course, Stevie had a heckuva head start. He also beat the odds of being one of those child prodigies who ends up in a cheap motel doing drugs with other former child stars or on bad reality shows. Instead, Stevie was able to convince Motown to leave him alone long enough that he could create his own kind of music. Lucky for him, his own kind of music turned out to be something other people wanted to hear as well. Usually it doesn't work out that way. Most people's own kind of music turns out to be self-indulgent awfulness, while Stevie only once decided to write an entire album about plants.
13) Bruce Springsteen: Bruce isn't just in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame, he's in the New Jersey Hall of Fame, which includes Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. As someone who spent many years living there, I know it should also commemorate an endless slew of toll plazas, treacherous highways plagued with endless retail stores and bad drivers, insane amounts of McMansions, and guys who say hello by staring at you and yelling "What the (expletive deleted) are you looking at?" On the plus side, someone else pumps your gas.
12) Willie Nelson: Country music's answer to the Grateful Dead? Well, technically, Willie came way first. But he does have that lazy, happy, pothead quality that makes you wonder how he gets so much done. I assume it's his Zen-like state that enables him to endure the rigors of the road after all these years. He's able to get to that mental state where you don't know where you are and you don't care. Actually, that's senility I just defined and I'm way more senile than Willie and something like half his age. Where'd I put my vapor rub?
11) Ray Charles: Ray Charles could sing anything. And to prove it, he did what at the time was practically unthinkable, an album of country-western covers that opened him up to a whole new audience and gave many others the idea of "crossing over" too. Of course, he also sang with Kermit the Frog. Which led to John Denver teaming up with the Muppets. Uh, thanks, Ray.
10) Prince: Ok, the name change was a bad idea. And he should never be allowed to make movies. And he probably records too much music. But that's actually our problem. It's up to us to find the time to listen to it all. The guy can play any instrument and every time someone sings in a freaky falsetto, or plays a sparse funk, they get compared to him. And also when someone acts kooky and secretive.
9) George Jones: No one phrases like George Jones. No one pauses like him. No one can wring sentiment with such economy. He purrs like a Cadillac but gets the mileage of a Toyota Hybrid. And if he earned the nickname "No Show Jones," we should probably dock his pension. But we can't. Because pensions are immutable.
8) Van Morrison: I've asked experienced journalists who was their toughest or worst interview and anyone who's had the pleasure of sparring with Van the Man seems to agree there's no more mercurial and difficult character in the music business than Vanno. Yet, few have made music as sublime. His voice is a natural wonder, even if these days it sounds like it's caught a cold.
7) Muddy Waters: If you had to name one bluesman to represent all of them, you might pick Howlin' Wolf. And I wouldn't argue. But Muddy Waters is such an automatic response, an American Icon as central to our nervous system as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. But he did it with far less marketing power and a great voice to boot. And with a name like Muddy Waters, he just has to be good.
6) Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry practically wrote the first rulebook for rock guitar. As the poet laureate of Detroit, Bob Seger, once sang, "All of Chuck's children are out there learning his licks." And they and just about every British guitar player in the 1960s played his licks. Usually worse.
5) Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash had about a three note range. Well, maybe a little more. But the man represented so much. He owned the color black. Wore it near exclusively. I could've done this man's laundry. Nothing to separate.
4) Miles Davis: Miles Davis didn't invent music, but he did invent new ways to play it. And he did so in a genre--that would be Jazz--that most people do not pay attention to (because it requires thinking and apparently making up your own words, since--dig this--most of the tunes are instrumentals! Weird huh?). And he managed to make people pay attention. And then he found ways to change it. And he employed other musicians who went on to become legends as well. And he made music that at first people hated. Then they liked it. When they either got used to it, or noticed that other people liked it.
3) Paul McCartney: McCartney's written songs that have been covered by thousands of people. His catalog of tunes reads like a one-man public domain; the songs are that universal. "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," "Let It Be," "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?", "The Long And Winding Road." And those aren't even the good ones.
2) James Brown: The Godfather of Soul was also a major proponent of funk. He was unstoppable. He could dance. He could sing. He could grunt. He could drive on angeldust. And he collected fines from his bandmates when they screwed up. At least he didn't shoot them.
1) Bob Dylan: Someone once described his voice as sounding like that of a cow with his leg caught in a fence. Piqued my interest. No matter how much is written about the man, he never becomes any more known to any of us. That's what I call a legend.