The Band's Robertson Wants Kids To Know Music's 'Legends'
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. "Legends, Icons and Rebels" is the name of a new book for young readers and music lovers. It's aimed at turning on a younger generation to the musical risk-takers who came before.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG MONTAGE)
JAMES BROWN: (Singing) I feel good...
ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) You say either, and I say either...
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Here comes the sun...
PATSY CLINE: (Singing) Crazy...
NAT KING COLE: (Singing) It is only a paper moon...
BLOCK: The book features profiles of 27 singers, with two CDs to go along with it. Spearheading the project is Robbie Robertson, a legend, icon and rebel in his own right. He was the main songwriter and lead guitarist for The Band in the '60s and '70s, and he joins me from New York. Robbie Robertson, welcome to the program.
ROBBIE ROBERTSON: Hi, Melissa.
BLOCK: And how did all this start?
ROBERTSON: Actually, it originated with my son, Sebastian, who was - years ago, he was working at a place called Bright Child, in Santa Monica. This was where parents would bring their young children; and they would play, and they would learn, and they'd socialize. And part of his responsibility there was to choose music for them.
And of course, he played the usual kiddies music - the Humpty-Dumpty, diddle stuff, you know. So he said every once in a while, he would slip in a little Johnny Cash or Marvin Gaye. And he just saw something happen with the kids, that the room just lit up. And so he said to me back then, someday, somebody should do something aimed at kids so they grow up, and they have a foundation of the greatest recording artists of all time.
BLOCK: And so a project was born.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEGGY SUE")
BUDDY HOLLY: (Singing) If you knew Peggy Sue, then you'd know why I feel blue without Peggy...
BLOCK: You include, Robbie Robertson, your first-person memories of the impact that a lot of these musicians made on you when you were young, some of that being times when you actually met them. And one of these was when you say you met Buddy Holly when you were 14. How'd that come about?
ROBERTSON: I grew up in Toronto, and he was playing on one of those Alan Freed rock 'n' roll shows back then. After the show, everybody left, and I hung around a little bit. And I saw Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and they were packing up their equipment. I boldly called out to him - and I said, I'm sorry to bother you, Mister, but how in the world do you get that sound out of your amplifier? Your guitar is so powerful-sounding. And he was sweet enough that he said, OK, I'm going to tell you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEGGY SUE")
ROBERTSON: I blew a speaker, and I didn't get it fixed. And I thought, I just got the holy grail.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO RIFF)
BLOCK: You subtitled the book "Music That Changed the World" and a number of the artists in here are, you know, obvious. It would be The Beatles, and Johnny Cash; Hank Williams is in there. But also, you get to throw in Louis Jordan and his song "Caldonia."
ROBERTSON: I love the fact that he was the first one who took this band-era thing, boiled it down to a combo, which became the instrumentation for all of the rock 'n' roll bands in the very beginning of rock 'n' roll.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALDONIA")
LOUIS JORDAN: (Singing) Walking with my baby, she's got great big feet. She long, lean and lanky and ain't had nothing to eat. But she's my baby, and I love her just the same...
BLOCK: Anybody who hears this song loves it, right? But for a kid to hear, what makes your big head so hard, huh, they're going to love it, right?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALDONIA")
JORDAN: (Singing) Caldonia, Caldonia, what make your big head so hard? I love you...
BLOCK: I'm talking with Robbie Robertson about his project "Legends, Icons, and Rebels: Music That Changed the World." When your kids were growing up, were you conscious of trying to teach them who you thought great musicians were?
ROBERTSON: Well, in my house, this kind of came with the dinner. All of these people that are in this book, their music was playing all the time. And when my kids were, you know, just little nippers and everything, they knew who Bob Marley was. They know who Billie Holiday was. And it would come up in conversation, but I was never trying to make them learn something. It just felt natural.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CIRCLE GAME")
JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) Yesterday, a child came out to wander. Caught a dragonfly inside a jar...
BLOCK: You do, in the text of the book, when you're talking about the biographies of these artists, you don't gloss over a lot of the really dark chapters in their lives - drug abuse, alcoholism, racism. And I wanted to ask you about one; and that's the chapter on Joni Mitchell, where you spend time talking about the child that she had as a young singer, whom she gave up for adoption.
ROBERTSON: You know, all of these things in our life have an effect on what we do. And Joni's story is such a moving and touching story. And our ideal in putting this together - when you say not gloss over - it was really about honesty. We didn't want to get down and dirty, but we did want it to be upfront and honest.
BLOCK: I did notice that in the chapter on Marvin Gaye, you mentioned that he's died, but you did not mention how he died. And it's a tragic story; he was shot by his own father. Did you talk about whether to include that or not?
ROBERTSON: We did talk about that and in some cases, you just felt like, oh, I don't want to do that to Marvin. We want to do these things with full respect, and everything that we did in this book was really an homage to these people. So there's a delicate balance there between the honesty and then just trying to get down in the dirt. It was just not necessary.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I HEARD IT THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE")
MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) You could have told me yourself that you love someone else, instead I heard it through the grapevine...
BLOCK: If you think about the music that you're hearing now, are there artists who you're hearing now, who you could imagine would rise to the status of a legend, would be in a book like this in another time?
ROBERTSON: You know, for all the artists that are in this book, they have a timeless thing in their music. And only time really tells in that. We had discussed artists from the '80s, and we weren't positive yet who was going to make that cut because we've all listened to music and thought we enjoyed it; and then listened to it a few years later and thought, what was I thinking, you know? It's like ay-yay-yay.
BLOCK: I've had that feeling.
ROBERTSON: Time is not kind to everything.
BLOCK: Well, Robbie Robertson, it's been fun talking to you. Thank you so much.
ROBERTSON: A lot of fun talking with you, Melissa, thank you.
BLOCK: That's Robbie Robertson. We were talking about the illustrated book for young readers called "Legends, Icons and Rebels: Music That Changed The World." It comes with two CDs. Now, we know, we know, we just touched a baby boomer sweet spot. So to be fair, let's hear from you Gen Xers and Millennials. We want to know what musicians do your kids need to know about?
What music from the '80s on up to now do you think has a chance at becoming timeless and why? Please tell us. Go to npr.org. Scroll to the bottom of the page, click on Contract, and please put the phrase "Future Legends" in your subject line. You can also send us a tweet. We are @NPRATC, and we'll share some of your comments on the program next week.
(SOUNDBITE OF U2 SONG, "I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR")
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.