Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Rock Hall Backlog Part 7: Acclaimed "cult" artists with consistent previous votes from the Nominating Committee but no ballot appearances

This seventh article in a series analysing the backlog of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will look at cult artists who have been acclaimed by small or relatively small followings and have had enough of a reputation at least in certain circles to gain votes from the Nominating Committee.

Before I continue further I will note that there is a great deal of overlap between this group and that discussed in the previous post. Indeed, most of the choices are as much my own discretion as absolute commercial success, whilst trying to divide the three posts evenly accounts for placing rap backlog artists in the next post of the series. To cover the large proportion of backlog artists of whom my knowledge is non-existent, All Music chart data were used.

Also note that T. Rex and Roxy Music, whilst major stars in my Australian homeland and in Europe, are listed here because they were essentially cult acts in the United States. Numerous artists (most significantly John Cougar Mellencamp) who are unknown or nearly so in Europe get in the Hall on American popularity. Though very few inductees are unknown here in Australia, some of the backlog artists below certainly would not be familiar to the average Australian music listener.

As in the previous post, artists will be listed by eligibility date from earliest to latest.

The Harptones: A doo-wop group who never even had a hit on the black charts, they have been eligible since the Rock Hall was founded. One might think them a possible candidate for induction as an Early Influence, but their association with more successful doo-wop groups seems to rule this out. Still, if the Committee desires another doo-wop act their influence could be handy.

The Big Bopper: Died in the place crash that killed Richie Valens and Buddy Holly, but much less commercially successful: having only one "hit" in "Chantilly Lace". Certainly no front-runner even among the "cult" groups.

Junior Parker: Eligible since the Hall was founded, Junior Parker had no commercial success except on the black charts. However, ever since he died in 1971 from a brain tumour, he has been regarded as one of the most influential bluesmen: Al green dedicated one of his albums to him. However, he is not well known outside the narrow confines of blues circles and it is quite hard to see him as one of the more likely candidates.

Slim Harpo: Another famous blues musicians whose most famous song, "I'm a King Bee", is best known on the Rolling Stones' debut album. "Shake Your Hips" was also covered on Exile on Main Street. He did have two Top 40 Pop hits in 1961's number 34 "Raining in My Heart" and 1966's "Baby Scratch My Back", but yet again we are not really finding a likely candidate or one considered generally worthy by younger readers like me.

Dick Dale: Eligible since 1987/1988, Dick Dale is widely regarded as the first "guitar god" in the rock world. Though he had very little commercial success, he is viewed as a very important influence on artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Who. The very status of those artists - which I myself tend to question - makes Dale of the better "cult" chances within the backlog.

Albert King: Like Dick Dale, an important influence upon Hendrix; King predated Hendrix' habit of turning a right-handed guitar upside down to give a unique sound. He is in a sense similar to Dick Dale but not so well known and thus less likely to be elected.

Rufus Thomas: Forty-seven when he released his first record in 1964, Rufus Thomas did not have a Top 100 pop album and was best known for two hits "Walking the Dog" (#10 pop) and "Do that Funky Chicken" (#28 pop). He is probably valued for his role mentoring many artists on Stax but it is not easy to see him reaching the ballot.

Junior Wells: A major blues harmonica player eligible since 1990/1991, he never had a record on the Billboard Pop charts but is cited as an important influence by Paul Butterfield and Bonnie Raitt. He did record material that hardly changed right up to his death but it does not seem likely Wells will make the ballot soon.

The Blues Project: A short-lived contemporary of the Grateful Dead and eligible since 1991/1992, the Blues Project are recognised as one of the first psychedelic jam bands. They never got beyond #52 on Pop Albums or #96 on Pop Singles, but the fact that they pioneered a highly respected style of the late 1960s may be what has made them so close to the Nominating Committee's radar. It is still doubtful to me that they have enough important material to gain a ballot place.

Captain Beefheart: Along with the Velvet Underground, Stooges and MC5, one of the "big four" protopunk artists, though his music was entirely unlike that of such critically slaved bands as the Ramones and Pistols, possessing abrupt tempo changes and extreme dissonance that fans of those groups might have trouble understanding. His most famous work, 1969's Trout Mask Replica, was #45 on Joe S. Harrington's Top 100 Albums even though Harrington actually criticises the record, which goes to show how influential he was. If the Stooges do get in, I would expect to see Beefheart given a turn on the ballot, though I don't feel he will be elected if he does.

Mitch Ryder: A contemporary of protopunk bands like the MC5 and Stooges, Mitch Ryder was first eligible in 1991/1992. His stripped-down music is the root of such "populist" American rockers as Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp and Bob Seger, but he does not receive as much critical notice as those he influenced. He has relatively little critical favour for an artist who, at least by his description, might be expected to be a perennial on best-albums lists. He is perhaps not well known enough to be a likely inductee

Canned Heat: They did have two major hits with "Going Up the Country" and "On The Road Again"; thus they could be seen as a "popular" artist, but much of their material did not receive wide exposure. The fame in the 1960s underground may give them a chance of a ballot place, but I cannot say they have the credentials to get in.

Country Joe & the Fish: Most famous and viewed most important for their radical anti-war politics rather than their music, Country Joe and the Fish still gain much acclaim amongst the critics (for instance two albums in The MOJO Collection). The fact that so many in the aging Nominating Committee were from the very generation that rebelled against Vietnam makes Country Joe and the Fish quite an intriguing possibility with few or no new candidates coming through soon.

Laura Nyro: As a prominent presence on her fan sites at Café Utne and Yahoo, I might be biased if I were not careful. It is true that Nyro never had a Billboard Top 75 single or Top 30 album, but her influence on artists like Joni Mitchell and, as Michele Kort shows, Elton John who are already in does make her a possibility. On the other side, the fact that singer-songwriters like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Kate Bush have never been mentioned is definitely a strike against Nyro. I would rate her as a serious chance even if I feel it likely Nyro like most artists of her type has too many enemies to be inducted.

Dr. John: Had one number nine US hit in 1973 with "Right Place Wrong Time" and is cited as a major influence on Van Morrison and the Allman Brothers Band's early 1970s masterpieces like Moondance and Allman Brothers at Fillmore East. Despite retaining a strong cult following to this day, Dr. John is not very well known critically and whether his influence has persisted beyond the "punk" and rap revolutions is far from certain. Would be some surprise, but if he does make the ballot it would be easier to see him elected than such "difficult" artists as Beefheart or Nyro.

T. Rex: Although I see them as very overrated and childish, T. Rex have maintain the credibility of critics beyond the "punk revolution" in a manner not possible for many artists of their time. Their album Electric Warrior has made many best albums lists and is regarded as the most important album of the entire glam-rock movement. Even with only one American hit, T. Rex should have a serious chance of reaching the ballot after being first eligible in 1992/1993.

Flying Burrito Brothers: A pioneering critically-lauded band formed by Gram Parsons after he left inductees The Byrds. Eligible since 1993/1994, the Flying Burrito Brothers are regarded as the originator of country rock. They had very little commercial success but much critical acclaim. Should Gram Parsons' solo career become seen as lacking the necessary credentials I would expect the Flying Burrito Brothers to have a serious chance of reaching the ballot soon.

Johnny Winter: Eligible since 1994/1995, Winter was a blues guitarist who is seen as an influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan (widely tipped to have been inducted this year but the Nominating Committee never discussed him). He has a reputation among fans as one of the finest guitarists in the history of rock, but never had a recognisable hit single or signature song. That makes him rather a longshot even with the admirers he had or has.

Ry Cooder: Eligible since 1995/1996, Cooder could be inducted as a member of Beefheart's Magic Band since he played on Safe as Milk, but his solo career won him quite a bit of critical acclaim and one classic rock radio standard in "Little Sister". Cooder's fame and influence on world music (via his work with Buena Vista Social Club in the 1990s) certainly overshadows the fact that he never made it beyond #43 on the Billboard charts. Quite a good chance especially as they don't seem to acknowledge backing bands like Beefheart's often.

Hot Tuna: Eligible since 1995/1996 and originally a spin-off group from Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna are to my mind a very unlikely candidate in terms of actual merit but one who undoubtedly have considerable support because they were seen as the heir to the tradition of the Airplane when and after Jefferson Starship turned to pompous adult oriented rock (mind you, "We Built This City" is actually as listenable as anything they did). I would not expect to see Hot Tuna make the ballot but think it could happen if the viewpoints of the Nominating Committee ossify.

Todd Rundgren: Often mentioned on the Laura Nyro sites linked to above, his best-known songs and only Australian hits do sound to me like imitations of Laura's very earliest work, but he was more commercially successful than Nyro. His fame as a producer, however, outstrips what he did as a performer and one imagines Rundgren could get a chance under the Non-Performer category. The lack of a definite category for his admission may be the crux that keeps him off the ballot or other discussion.

Roxy Music: Arguably my all-time favourite rock artist, as with Laura Nyro I should be careful not to be biased. they had only a cult following in the States, where their highest-charting album only made #23 and the masterful Stranded spent only four weeks in the Top 200. Their influence on the synth-pop and dream-pop of the 1980s is undeniable, as is Ferry's status as the most successful bender of normal gender roles in the twentieth century. The amazing intensity and free-flowing character of their best music may not appeal but they had undoubted critical respect. This critical respect does objectively make them a very good chance of a ballot place and possible induction, especially after Rolling Stone listed them amongst their Top 100 artists.

Tom Waits: Eligible since 1998/1999, Waits has had more success as a songwriter than as a performer but his records eventually broke through - oddly when he with Mule Variations left a major label! He has had immense critical acclaim from people like Piero Scaruffi and is viewed as a highly innovative artist during his Island years. Waits' lack of commercial success until the 1990s might affect his chances, but he is so critically acclaimed as to be well known to those who have never heard his music that he should not be ruled out.

The Replacements: One of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s, Richie Unterberger said circa 2002 that the Replacements had a chance of getting inducted despite next to no commercial success. When I found they had been discussed, I expected them to be on this year's ballot, but they were not. The problem it seems is that the Nominating Committee is very reluctant to discuss newly eligible artists because it believes it has too big a backlog to deal with, but if other backlog artists are rejected the Replacements would have a very good chance.

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