“Everybody they ought to make a change sometime
Yeah, cause sooner or later, you got to go out in that lonesome ground.”
Everybody Oughta Make a Change, Sleepy John Estes, Blues Singer
In September 2023, former Rolling Stone magazine Editor/Publisher and Board member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Jann Wenner, gave an interview to New York Times Writer, David Marchese. The interview was in promotion of Wenner’s new book, “The Masters.” This book is a profile of seven Rock & Roll musicians that Wenner had interviewed during his time with Rolling Stone magazine. The interviewees included John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bono, Springsteen, Pete Townsend and Jerry Garcia. Some of the heavy hitters in Rock & Roll, no doubt. But all male and all white.
At the time of the September Times interview, Wenner’s book, “The Masters,” was due to be released on September 26 by Little, Brown and Company. Asked by Marchese why no women musicians or black artists were included as masters in his book, Wenner’s responses were somewhat disturbing. Regarding women musicians, Wenner said: “It’s not they’re inarticulate, although, go have a deep conversation with Janis Joplin or Grace Slick. Please be my guest. Joni (Mitchell) was not a philosopher of Rock and Roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test.”
(Author’s note: Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Joni Mitchell could have easily trounced Wenner in the conversationalist stakes. Any one of them could have eaten him for breakfast, intelligence-wise. They would just need a large glass of a beverage of their choice to wash his arrogant and sexist elitism down…)
On black musicians, Wenner further stated, “Of black artists-you know, Stevie Wonder, genius, right? I suppose when you use a word as broad as ‘masters,’ the fault is using that word. Maybe Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield? I mean they just didn’t articulate at that level.”
The Marchese interview with Jann Wenner was published, in the New York Times, on September 15,
2023. The next day, September 16, Wenner was removed as the Director of the Board of Advisors for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Ironic, as September 16 would have been B.B. King’s 98th birthday. As B.B. changed the vocabulary of Blues and Rock & Roll guitar, I think he would have qualified for the title of Master. To the Hall’s benefit, Wenner will no longer be participating in any decision-making processes for them.
Wenner left Rolling Stone magazine in 2019. Since his recently published, unfortunate comments, Rolling Stone has publicly disavowed Wenner. In essence, they feel that he is not important to the current standards of their magazine. (Seriously–what standards?) In reality, despite its musical feature beginnings, Rolling Stone is now a pastiche of overdone ad-space and half-baked political commentary. Well, one does need to keep the lights on, eh?
Perhaps that is their current readership. A monthly issue of Rolling Stone magazine used to be an event. Not anymore. They have become placid and comfortable. They lost their edge, in both their musical and political coverage.
Wenner’s inclusion of the aforementioned seven male figures of Rock & Roll, with no women or black artists included, speaks volumes in regard to his embraced levels of sexism and racism. Granted, the seven artists referenced in the book were directly interviewed by Wenner. Perhaps that is why masters like Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, among many, were not included. Nonetheless, he was with Rolling Stone from 1967 to 2019. So does that mean he didn’t interview any women or people of color during his time with the magazine? I know better. Through his publisher, he has since apologized for his rather ignorant comments.
This book is merely an exercise of his own ego gratification and not much else, except maybe a stilted, cultural elitism. I am a great reader and a consistent purchaser of books. But I will not check this book out from the local library, nor will I be purchasing it. I read these interviews when they were originally published in Rolling Stone; no new information here.
Wenner’s recent statements underscore some of the profound problems I have had with the Rock & Roll
Hall of Fame as an institution. Originally, the Hall was conceived as a museum with a profound sense of history. What follows is the story of the beginning of the Hall and some of what has changed in its 40-plus year history.
In 1983, Atlantic Records Co-Founder, Ahmet Ertegun, established the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. He assembled an advisory team that included Wenner and record executives, Seymour Stein, Bob Krasnow and Noreen Woods. The team also included attorneys Allen Grumman and Suzan Evans. Recent press reports regarding the controversial New York Times interview have been partially inaccurate. These reports have listed
Wenner as a co-founder of the RRHOF, which he was not. In 1986, though a city for the final museum destination had not been permanently decided, the first round of artists were inducted. The first inductees included the majority of the founding Fathers of Fifties Rock & Roll. That list included Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles. This was an even 10 of some of the most important musical figures to emerge from the first wave of the Rock & Roll explosion.
The board also established an early influences category. In 1986, the first round of forefathers included Jimmy Rogers, AKA The Singing Brakeman, and bluesmen Jimmy Yancey and Robert Johnson. Also included was radio host Alan Freed, who propagated the commercial use of the phrase, “Rock and Roll.” Additionally, Sun Records Producer, Sam Phillips, was also inducted.
In the 1950’s, Alan Freed organized a show, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, titled “The Moondog Coronation Ball” which featured some of the cream of early Rock & Roll. This was one of the first realizations that there was a youth market that bought records by the millions.
Sam Phillips was a giant in the landscape of American music. Phillips’ Sun Studios and Sun Records
included some classic output from some of the greatest figures in Postwar-Blues and R & B. Because of his broad vision, Phillips made some of the first recordings of Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Roscoe Gordon, Ike Turner, Earl Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland, James Cotton and Little Milton, among many.
In 1954, after making the first recordings of a 19-year-old Elvis Presley, Phillips switched from recording the Blues to recording folks like Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Harmonica Frank, Billy Lee Riley and Charlie Rich, among other notables. These men were artists, like the classic Bluesmen before them. They were men who were influenced by early Blues, Country and Gospel–Rockabillies all, or at least operating from a Rockabilly spirit. (Sometime in the future, I may write a broader appreciation of Sam Phillips work as a producer.)
So, the first round of inductees all were crucially important to the history of American music. Ahmet Ertegun was a class act and the RRHOF benefited from his vision and his impeccable, musical taste. Even though the first round of inductees were all male, 1987 included everyone from Aretha Franklin to Muddy Waters to Hank Williams, Sr.
This is the soundtrack of the America that I love. It remains quite broad.
Though there was no physical building for the hall, for the first nine years of its existence, the once-a-year awards ceremony was entertaining, usually staged at venues such as New York’s the Waldorf Astoria. It was a ceremony where those who were influenced inducted and awarded their influences, such as Keith Richards inducting Chuck Berry in ’86.
The board decided to erect a physical museum in Cleveland, Ohio in 1995. As Alan Freed helped establish Rock & Roll as a term and a business principle in that city, Cleveland seemed like the easy choice. The more interesting and appropriate choice, for me, would have been Memphis. The Ertegun years were balanced by a historical appreciation of our musical forebears and the creation of a great awards show that would fill the seats at a fairly high-priced event. The awards show would end with an all-star jam. That led to some interesting musical moments that did not happen anywhere else. As the years progressed, the jams became even more interesting.
From 1986 until Ahmet Ertegun’s death in 2006, the RRHOF had a reasonably, consistent balance. But starting around 2008, the Hall’s advisors were embracing less of music history. They started embracing more of the music business end of things. With the death of Ertegun, decisively non-Rock and Roll artists, such as Madonna, started becoming the artists the Hall inducted…
There have been some glaring contradictions in the history of the RRHOF, including Eric Clapton being Inducted three times with The Yardbirds, Cream, and for his solo career, but they did this before profound Clapton influences such as Albert and Freddie King were even considered. The yearly inductee awards started becoming glitzier and fake.
Such a broad range of artists started being inducted, many of them decidedly not Rock & Roll. It makes one wonder if the Hall should be renamed as simply “The Music” Hall of Fame. Much of this due to Jann Wenner’s
lack of stewardship for the history of the music.
It astounds me how many important artists have yet to be placed in the Hall. Here is my partial list of missing artists from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Consider the following list–some may surprise you:
Warren Zevon, Jethro Tull, Otis Rush, Hubert Sumlin, Barbara Lynn, Levon Helm (solo work), Robbie Robertson (solo work), Lowell George, Little Feat, Earl Hooker, Johnny Winter, Elkie Brooks, John Mayall, The White Stripes, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, Rory Gallagher, Soundgarden, A Tribe Called Quest, Marianne Faithful, Fela Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Harry Nilsson, Eddie Hinton, Bobby Charles and James Carr, among far too many.
Missing from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, all. We all have our favorites and resent their omission.
Perhaps with the recent dismissal of Jann Wenner, the Hall may return to its historical foundation. One can only hope. Being something of a corporate shill, Wenner was a big fan of any music that sold. I appreciate respect for great artists, as long as it does not merge into plastic idolatry with its attendant corporate sponsors. With eyes on eternity, fame and idolatry belong on this bitter earth and nowhere else.