Archive for February, 2020

American Royalty


Latifah, Queen of American Royals

Amidst a seemingly endless barrage of bad news, one perennial with its own version of bad news keeps coming: coverage of the British Royals. From the sex scandals of Prince Andrew, to the infighting of the newly self-exiled couple Harry and Meghan (the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) and his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, their dirty laundry never ceases to be hung out in public. And if there ever is a pause, the marvelous caricature of the mush-mouthed fop, King George III from Hamilton is always there to remind us colonists he’s ever-ready to kill us kindly to show his love.

But with Black History Month winding down, I thought it the perfect moment to pay homage to our own Royalty, with thumbnail sketches and one selection from of some of its greats—those self-selected for the job, who have talent, abiding legacies and enduring gifts. Call them Rock Stars.

All have had sensational careers, uncountable awards and recognition, and have hugely influenced generations of fans and musicians who have followed them. Two of these Royals have deep roots in jazz and herald from the era of Swing.

Edward Kennedy Duke Ellington, was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899 and died in 1974. Hi mother, Daisy, also a pianist, taught him manners and dignity as well as giving him piano lessons (although at the time, he preferred baseball). His off-hand manner and dapper dress earned him the title of Duke from his young friends. Pianist, composer, legendary band leader, his career began in the 1920’s—when he was a popular figure at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club—and spanned many decades. He toured abroad as well as in the States, and a very successful appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 introduced him to a new generation of fans. His multiple prizes culminated in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999.  Check out this classic on You Tube, “Take the A Train” from the film Reveille with Beverly, 1943.

James Count Basie was born in New Jersey in 1904 and died in 1984. Both parents were musicians, and his mother took in laundry to get him piano lessons. He quickly moved toward vaudeville, and before age 20 worked as a pianist accompanist and music director for blues performers. By then he was on the move: first to Harlem where he mingled with the greats, including Louis Armstrong; then to Kansas City for many years where his royal identity emerged his band, “Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm; and eventually Chicago where he developed his signature “jumping beat”  and showcased stars such as Billie Holiday; and finally to New York where he dominated in the era of swing. In the post-war period he recorded and toured widely, added pop and rock to his repertoire, performed at an inaugural ball for JFK in 1961, and later that year made a record with his contemporary icon, Duke Ellington with “First Time! The Count Meets the Duke.” Check out his classic “Pennies from Heaven” in the 1944 D-Day Remembrance Album on YouTube.


Nathaniel Adams, a.k.a. Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919, and died too young in 1965.

Vocalist, pianist, and the first African-American man to host a T.V. series, he is remembered for his beautiful ballads and fabulous pop tunes, over 100 of which rose to the top of the charts. In L.A., in the ‘30s, giving a nod to another old English king of nursery rhyme legend, he formed a band called the “King Cole Swingsters,” and the name stuck. Though the Nat King Cole Show on NBC lasted only one season, he was able to host gold-star guests such as Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. When the network pulled the plug, Cole commented on the racism of the day saying, “Madison Ave. is afraid of the dark.” He then went on to Havana and made several wildly popular recordings in Spanish. Years after his untimely death, his daughter, singer Natalie Cole, using new technology, was able to re-record some of his songs in duet with herself. Listen to the 1991 smash hit version of “Unforgettable,” found on YouTube and made forty years after the original version.


Prince Rogers Nelson was to the royal manner born in Minneapolis in 1958, and died in 2016. He came into the world with high rank accorded by his father, who gave him the name Prince because he hoped his son “would do everything I wanted to do.” Given his incredible musicianship, his wide-ranging voice, his flamboyant persona, outrageous success and worldwide fan club, dad must have been pleased. Prince perfected his own musical style, blending punk rock, synthesizer, pop and new wave. He made a title-track in 1999 against nuclear proliferation, appeared constantly on MTV, played the Superbowl, and in 2004, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, he loomed as large as in life, as the world stopped in mourning and in praise. At home, even the highest realms of power bowed down, including President Barack Obama, who paid him tribute, and the U.S. Senate, which passed a resolution honoring his achievements. And what could be more Prince than “Purple Rain.” Check out “Prince—Purple Rain,” the official video from April 2016 on YouTube.


Dana Elaine Owens—Queen Latifah—was born in New Jersey in 1970. Rapper, singer, song writer, actress, producer, she made her debut album in 1989, Hail to the Queen. The name stuck. And what list of American royalty would be complete without our own version of Elizabeth II? She went on to make Nature of a Sistah in 1991—and just took off from there, non-stop. A Fox Sitcom, followed by a Grammy for the single “U.N.I.T.Y.”  in 1993, which had a huge influence on women; then on to hosting her own daytime T.V. talk show; making more acclaimed records and films, including an Academy Award nomination for her role in the smash hit musical, Chicago, in 2004, and critical acclaim for starring as Bessie Smith in the HBO film Bessie, in 2015. And the awards keep coming. But she has perhaps no higher accolade than the sales of over 2 million records. To choose among them, I’ll pick a personal favorite to recommend: “Queen Latifah—When You’re Good to Mama,” on YouTube.

It contains a message old King George III would have been well-advised to listen to before his unruly colonists told him in very American terms to “bugger off.”




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