Unusual Musical Collaborations and Cameos (Part One)

It often comes as a surprise to music fans when they hear that their favorite artists, in any category, are themselves fans of other musical genres. Even more surprising is when they learn that their heroes actually play those other music styles. Yet when an artist goes in a different direction, such as when Billy Joel releases a classical record or when Lionel Ritchie does country music, it’s often from an affinity for that music that may stem from as early as the artist’s childhood.

Sometimes, the spark may come from befriending another musician, such as when Gram Parsons introduced Keith Richards to country music. Other times the inspiration can come from hearing a record; for example, Paul Simon hearing The Swan Silvertones’ “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” gospel track, which would spark him to compose “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Musical collaborations have sometimes led to landmark recordings. The duets of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, or Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, or Prince and Beyoncé opening the 2004 Grammys are globally-adored favorites.  Eric Clapton’s guest guitar solo on The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Sting’s self-mocking guest vocal on Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” are both part of music history.

One of the more interesting live music TV shows is CMT’s Crossroads, which has run for 18 seasons. The concept of the show combines famous country artists with artists from other music genres. Cross-genre music collaboration occurs constantly in private jam sessions, and thanks to the internet and YouTube we can now actually find some of the more interesting or obscure ones, occasionally with less-than-stellar results but more often with results that are greater than the sum of their parts. Here are a few:

“Another Star” – Stevie Wonder and George Benson

1976 was a huge year for George Benson. After years of paying dues as a talented but moderately successful jazz guitarist, he released Breezin,’ his first album to feature his previously hidden vocal talents. Spearheaded by the Leon Russell-penned hit single “This Masquerade,” Breezin’ went triple platinum.

1976 was also the year Stevie Wonder came out of a self-imposed retirement to deliver what many consider to be his magnum opus, Songs in the Key of Life.

By the mid-1970s, Berry Gordy’s Motown had lost much ground because of disco and changing musical tastes. Smokey Robinson had broken up the Miracles. The Supremes, The Temptations and The Four Tops were undergoing personnel changes, Epic Records had swiped Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, and Marvin Gaye was getting restless (and ultimately was lured away by Columbia Records).

Stevie Wonder had become Motown’s remaining hit record behemoth, with the grand slam of Music of My Mind (1972), Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973) and Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974). With Clive Davis of Arista among several suitors looking to lure Stevie Wonder away, Berry Gordy was desperate to keep his star in the Motown stable.

Starting as a child musical prodigy Stevie Wonder had had an amazing string of hits, yet his artistic vision had grown by leaps and bounds as he entered his 20s: playing all the instruments on his records, experimenting with synthesizers and incorporating jazz and classical harmonic layers into his music, all without alienating his fans and continuing to sell millions of records.

Weary of pop music fame and Motown’s star-making machinery, Wonder threatened to abandon the music industry to focus on helping disabled kids in Ghana – unless Gordy agreed to new contract terms. These would include a $13 million (close to $60 million in 2020 dollars) advance with up to $37 million if Wonder reached his album quotas; a 20 percent royalty; full songwriting publishing rights; the right to choose singles for release; and more. Wonder also reserved the right to record wherever and with whoever he pleased, and he wanted two new Yamaha GX-1 synthesizers, a rare $60,000 (over $200k in 2020 dollars) special order instrument only owned at the time by Keith Emerson, ABBA and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. The deal was unprecedented in the music industry and was valued to be worth more than Elton John’s and Neil Diamond’s contracts combined. Gordy had no choice but to agree.

Over 130 artists including jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, flautist Bobbi Humphrey, and New Riders of the Purple Sage pedal steel guitarist “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow contributed to the recording of the 2-LP Songs in the Key of Life. Stevie Wonder asked George Benson to play lead guitar and sing on the closing song, “Another Star,” which would become the fourth single from the album. Benson leapt at the opportunity, even though his own star was in its ascendancy.

Benson’s lead guitar kicks in at 3:09 and he scat sings lead in counterpoint with Bobbi Humphrey’s flute at 6:37. In interviews, Benson considered the invitation to be “a great honor” and thought Stevie Wonder to be a musical genius whose sophisticated harmonic arrangements and infectious melodies were way above his peers’. Benson felt it was a challenge to come up with a guitar part that could add something to the song. In retrospect, taking over the lead vocal part on a Stevie Wonder recording before Benson’s own singing fame was established might have been the more intimidating assignment.

The infectious “la la” refrain, salsa-influenced percussion and jazzy instrumental track marked yet more steps in Stevie Wonder’s artistic development, and followed the success of the previous Duke Ellington-inspired single, “Sir Duke.” “Another Star” reached #32 on the US Billboard charts.

 

The diamond-selling (10x platinum!) Songs in the Key of Life proved that Berry Gordy’s gamble on Wonder was worth every penny. Ironically, Benson’s Breezin’ wound up in competition with Songs in the Key of Life in several 1977 Grammy categories. Wonder came away with Album of the Year, while Benson won Record of the Year and Best Instrumental Album.

“One” – Metallica and Lang Lang

The Chinese face of classical music – controversy about showmanship over artistic integrity notwithstanding – is unquestionably that of pianist Lang Lang. With flashy, yet impeccably precise keyboard skills and a youthful bravado in performance that some have compared to that of his hero Franz Liszt, Lang Lang’s glittery outfits and showmanship have earned him a “rock star” tag that those who have not listened to his playing in depth might dismiss as more Elton John than Vladimir Horowitz.

However, Lang Lang’s musical abilities are undisputed among critics and other musicians. His  technical brilliance and ease of performance in the notoriously difficult Bartok Piano Concerto No. 2 with the New York Philharmonic in 2012 wowed critics. Herbie Hancock himself gushed over the emotional connection that Lang Lang’s playing has made with many listeners.

His classical music standing and acclaim secure, Lang Lang enjoys all kinds of music, and what better way to prove it than to play with icons from another music genre…like heavy metal?  And why not biggest name in metal – Metallica? If nothing else, Lang Lang’s numerous televised appearances and branding ventures have proven that his marketing acumen may be as adept as his piano playing.

Introduced when one of Metallica’s managers met a promoter in China who worked with Lang Lang, the collaboration between classical virtuoso and thrash metal pioneers was first realized at the 2014 Grammy Awards, where they performed James Hetfield’s anti-war song “One” from …And Justice for All (1988). (Based on the Dalton Trumbo novel Johnny Got His Gun, the depressing yet accessible “One” earned Metallica its first Grammy in 1989 for Best Metal Performance.) Three years later, Metallica and Lang Lang would once again perform “One” together, this time in Beijing.

Not merely a Metallica performance with Lang Lang adding piano, this rendition of “One” is a completely new arrangement. It opens with a Lang Lang piano introduction and features a piano break in the middle before the famous harmonized guitar solo from James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett. Lang Lang plays throughout the song, punctuating Hetfield’s vocals and Hammett’s guitar lines with piano flourishes in reply, and adeptly maintains sync with Lars Ulrich’s, ahem, rubato sense of rhythm.

This performance of “One” is a clear expression of fun and mutual admiration between the musicians, a true musical and cultural collaboration.

 

Metallica seems much more comfortable collaborating with Lang Lang here than in their somewhat forced-sounding and critically panned 2011 project with Lou Reed. Perhaps the combination of virtuoso gamesmanship and sense of fun that Lang Lang exudes created a more relaxed atmosphere than that of the notoriously acerbic Reed.

As for Lang Lang? He is reportedly good friends with Kanye West and has gone on record that they will work together in the future, so perhaps something like gospel hip-hop will be Lang Lang’s next musical adventure.

“Come With Me”  from the Godzilla soundtrack – Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Jimmy Page

In 1997 Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs wrote and recorded “I’ll Be Missing You,” a hip-hop tribute to his friend, murdered rapper Chris “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace, using sampled music from The Police’s hit single “Every Breath You Take” as the backing track. The record went triple platinum in the US and UK and is one of the top selling singles of all time. However, Combs never requested nor received permission from Sting to use the track. Police guitarist Andy Summers was unaware of the song until he heard it on the radio. Combs was sued and Sting won 100% of the music royalties in court.

A savvy branding entrepreneur, Combs jumped at the chance to combine another rap with a classic rock staple when approached to provide a song for the 1998 Hollywood reboot of  Godzilla. Directed by Independence Day’s Roland Emmerich, Godzilla received a huge marketing budget from Columbia/TriStar and this time, Combs asked for and received not only permission but production cooperation from none other than Jimmy Page. Combs’ new rap was called “Come With Me” and was written to be performed with Led Zeppelin’s iconic song “Kashmir.”

A notoriously keen businessman in his own right, Page saw the financial and marketing opportunities that would be afforded by exposing Zeppelin’s music to an entirely different audience, leveraging a connection to Combs to make his presence known in the hip hop arena, and to involving himself again in film soundtracks, an area in which he had previously dabbled with the Charles Bronson action feature Death Wish II.

Jimmy Page recalled: “I recorded my guitar at CTS Studio in Wembley, London via an ISDN line to Sean Combs at the Record Plant in LA and a video link between the two venues. After the guitar recording, a director was on hand to film my part of what was to become the promo video for the song. I was working to a blue screen on this and I thought they did a clever job the way they included the performance in the final cut.”

Page reworked the music from “Kashmir” and added other guitar parts and a melodic interlude which featured Combs’ singing in between the main rap sections. The music video was heavily promoted on MTV and other outlets.

 

Page and Combs would perform “Come With Me” live on several occasions, including the season 23 finale of Saturday Night Live and the 1999 NetAid concert at Giants Stadium.

 

Much to TriStar’s chagrin, Godzilla was a box office flop. “Come With Me” became one of the project’s few bright moments, going platinum and reaching #1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs and UK R&B charts. “Come With Me” became the theme song for New York Yankees’ shortstop Derek Jeter, much as Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” was the theme song for Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera.

“You Do Something To Me,” “Chasing Pavements,” “Need Your Love So Bad” – Adele and Paul Weller

Whenever an OG gives the stamp of approval to a young blood, it is a huge sign of respect. This has been a rite that transcends all cultures and avocations.

In December 2008, the UK program Hub Combo on BBC6 Music Live featured a unique British singer-songwriter pairing:

A young up-and-coming Adele, whose album 19, released earlier that year, would proceed to win Grammy Awards in 2009 for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance;

And “The Modfather” himself – Paul Weller, founder of The Jam and The Style Council and an artist so beloved in the UK that he is the only British musician to top the UK charts in five separate decades, apart from John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Given that his musical stature in the US is smaller than that of Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, who cites Weller as a primary influence, one cannot underestimate the intensity of Weller’s UK fan base.

Accompanied by a small combo and string section, the rising star and punk rock/neo soul elder statesman collaborated on a three-song duet performance that is luckily available on YouTube.

Weller has a history of lending his considerable gravitas and talents to up-and-coming artists in the UK, with Oasis, Blur, Ocean Colour Scene and Amy Winehouse among his beneficiaries. In a 2012 interview with The Daily Mirror, The Modfather spoke of the thrill of first hearing Adele sing.

On the surface, pairing Adele with Paul Weller would seem incongruous. Adele at the time had been ridiculed by critics for unabashedly citing The Spice Girls as a musical influence in interviews, and was maligned in social media for her weight, including a snarky comment from designer Karl Lagerfeld. Weller, known for his brutal honesty and uncompromising stubbornness in maintaining artistic integrity over hype, must have been hearing Adele’s other musical influences, including her love for Etta James, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys.

Additionally, Adele grew up in a single-parent working class household in Brixton. Her refreshing lack of pretension and refusal to compromise to the sexy glamour image of her peers also must have sparked a kinship with the Woking-bred Weller, whose songs about working class British life are a big part of his endearment to generations of UK fans.

Bearing this in mind, Weller, who disbanded The Jam at the height of its popularity to chase his Motown R&B muse with The Style Council (and who still performs Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in concert), could certainly find common ground with a singer like Adele if they were going to pursue a blue-eyed soul angle – which is what they did.

On the Hub Combo show, Weller, sitting at the piano, plays the introduction to the haunting “You Do Something To Me,” his UK Top 10 single from 1995’s Stanley Road. With Adele and Weller trading half-verses, this ode to unattainable love, a pervasive theme in Adele’s best-known songs, is certainly a simpatico one for her, and her emotion-laden mezzo-soprano matches Weller’s husky, world-weary baritone note-for-note and tear-for-tear.

 

A quiet acoustic guitar and an electric piano open Adele’s gorgeous “Chasing Pavements.” Adele throws down the gauntlet in the first verse, with Weller taking the second, both singing in unison in the chorus. Weller sings the third verse, and then Adele takes the song into its bridge and channels Etta James’ heart-wrenching “I’d Rather Go Blind” in her bluesy wails and powerful crescendos, with Weller rejoining for the final verse and choruses.

When asked about singing “Chasing Pavements” with Adele, Weller replied that he’d been singing it to himself in his touring van for months. Conversely, and somewhat star-struck, Adele talked about the experience of singing with the legendary Modfather: “It feels really a bit weird. I was scared to try to do anything different with it because of who [he] is…it’s just surreal.”

 

The final Hub Combo song is the Little Willie John blues standard made popular in the UK by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac: “Need Your Love So Bad.” Again trading half-verses, Weller and Adele round out their mutual song theme of unrequited love with a simultaneous nod to both their shared hardscrabble British roots and their reciprocal love of R&B.

 

Afterword: When Paul Weller won the 2009 BRIT award for Best Male Solo Artist, it was presented to him (in a pub) by none other than Adele.

 

Future articles on unusual musical collaborations and cameos will include artists of genres including music of other countries and even people outside the music industry.

 

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/John Athayde.