Friday, July 3, 2009

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I was recently reading an account of the BET awards/Michael Jackson tribute in which many of the attendees stated how much Michael Jackson influenced them. But what some forget in 2009 is that Jackson himself, and his brothers and sisters, consistently acknowledged how much they were influenced by others. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame page on the Jackson Five notes some of these influences:

Michael Jackson studied the moves of the masters: their onstage choreography, how they phrased a song, the way they worked a crowd. His heroes and tutors included James Brown, Sam and Dave, [Jackie] Wilson, Etta James and his older brother, Jermaine, who himself was a disciple of Marvin Gaye. The Jackson 5 also absorbed a considerable measure of influence from another “family” act: the prototypical soul/funk crossover band Sly and the Family Stone.

But the "family" Stone influenced more than the Jackson Five, as this 2006 record review notes:

Now we have a shell that moonlights as a “return,” channeling “modern” pop tropes, already channeled through Prince’s 28-yr career, into something slightly refreshing. And then Prince calls his new album an homage, of sorts, to those that influenced him, like Sly and the Family Stone or Al Green.

But these are just a couple of P.R. Nelson's influences. Just ask Joni Mitchell:

Prince attended one of my concerts in Minnesota. I remember seeing him sitting in the front row when he was very young. He must have been about 15. He was in an aisle seat and he had unusually big eyes. He watched the whole show with his collar up, looking side to side. You couldn’t miss him—he was a little Prince-ling. [Laughs.] Prince used to write me fan mail with all of the U’s and hearts that way that he writes. And the office took it as mail from the lunatic fringe and just tossed it!

And if you think Sly and the Family Stone was influential, check the list of people who cite Mitchell as an influence:

Through the '80s and '90s, Mitchell's influence could be seen in a range of artists beyond the legion of female—and male—singer/songwriters who claim her. Prince, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Janet Jackson, John Mellencamp, Donna Summer, Cassandra Wilson, and a host of jazz musicians acknowledge her.

Now you can, of course, continue to trace back and see who influenced Mitchell, and who influenced Sylvester Stewart, and so forth. Presumably it all ends up around King David, but it's important to remember - in music and in other fields - that all advances are based on the advances of those preceding you. Perhaps if it hadn't been for Sylvester Stewart and his bandmates, a certain family in Gary, Indiana would have continued to be everyday people.

P.S. That last link was to Sly and the Family Stone's MySpace page, Somehow I have a sneaking suspicion that said page was created by Sony, not by Sly himself. As eclectic as his music may be, I can't see Sly choosing Savage Garden as one of his top friends...
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