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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Ten Most Influential Musical Performances of the Twentieth Century

My friend Cory Franklin has posted a terrific essay in Chicago Life, making the very convincing case -- on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of "Rhapsody in Blue" -- that George Gershwin is the greatest American composer. As Cory puts it, 

He excelled at popular music. . . . He wrote brilliant movie scores, Broadway music, and straight classical works. His opera, “Porgy and Bess”, considered among the best American operas, features the song “Summertime”, rated by some as the greatest American song (diverse renditions include those by Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Billie Stewart and Gene Vincent, and it’s hard to find a bad one.) Other songwriter/composers – Berlin, Ellington, Bernstein, McCartney, Prokofiev - may have surpassed Gershwin in a certain genre, but no one matched his overall brilliance, all accomplished before he died at the age of 38. 

And if that isn't enough of a discussion starter, Cory also lists what he calls the ten most influential musical performances of the Twentieth Century.

Comments are open to discuss Cory's nominees, as well as my observations. Here they are:

The Jolson Sound”: Oct. 6, 1927  - "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson, one of the greatest stars in the world, premiered in New York City, and was the first feature-length film with synchronized sound.

"The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert":  January 16, 1938. Until the winter night in 1938 when a young Chicago clarinetist, Bennie Goodman, brought his band to Carnegie Hall, jazz music was limited primarily to nightclubs.

“The Columbus Day Riot, Sinatra at the Paramount”: October 12, 1944.  An unheard crowd of 35,000 girls – a new tribe known as bobbysoxers - appeared for his afternoon performance, which caused police to turn out in force.  

“1956 Newport Jazz Festival”: July 7, 1956.  On a rainy July evening at the Newport Jazz festival, Duke Ellington staged a comeback with a memorable set highlighted by a tenor solo performance of “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves.  The jazz classic brought the crowd to its feet and reinvigorated jazz in America.

“Elvis on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’”: September 9, 1956.  Sixty million viewers tuned in, more than 80% of TV viewers at the time, making it one of the highest rated shows of the decade. Sullivan subsequently assured America that Elvis was “a good boy” and the marriage between rock and roll and television was in full swing.

“The Million Dollar Quartet”: December 4, 1956. Rounding out 1956, possibly the single most important year for American music in the 20th century, was a one-time recording of an impromptu jam session at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee,involving four emerging country music legends:  Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. 

“The Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’”: February 9, 1964. 

“Dylan Goes Electric”: July 25, 1965 - Bob Dylan, the leading folk musician of the day, sang folk with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival.

“Jimi Hendrix at Monterey”: June 18, 1967. It was not foreordained the guitar would be the main instrument in rock and roll (the saxophone was an early competitor) but when it did, audiences looked to guitar virtuosos. They found a legendary one, introduced at the Monterey Pop Fest, in Jimi Hendrix.

“The Michael Jackson MTV Moonwalk”: May 16, 1983 – Historically, there were rock performers who incorporated dance into their rock acts, notably Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, and Mick Jagger.  Motown appreciated the combination of influences and employed a choreographer at the studio. But the seminal moment was when Michael Jackson did the “moonwalk” for the MTV program “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever.”

I have one significant disagreement with Cory's nominees; one additional performance that should absolutely be on the list, and three others that arguably belong, though I'm not sure which of Cory's could be dropped.

First, I don't think the Million Dollar Quartet belongs on the list of influential performances. Yes, it was a very cool event, but it cannot really be called influential, given that it was unknown at the time, and not even released until 1981. Elvis had already been on Ed Sullivan and other shows by then, and the other three were pretty well established, too. The impromptu session probably didn't even influence the people who were there. History would have been exactly the same if it had never happened.

The missing performance is Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, which may have been the most politically important musical event in American history. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the African American contralto to perform at Constitution Hall (which they controlled at the time, and maintained segregation), Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and arranged for Anderson to sing on the National Mall instead, with the implicit approval of FDR.  It was a crucial date in the integration of the performing arts in America. Two months later, the First Lady appeared at the NAACP convention to award a prize to Anderson. 

Three other possibilities are:

John Lomax recording Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter at Louisiana's Angola Prison in July 1933 (exact date unknown), which was arguably the beginning of the popularization of American folk music, and its multiple revivals over the years.

Alan Lomax's recording of McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield, in Stovall Mississippi, in August 1941 (exact date unknown), which inspired Muddy to move to Chicago, where he popularized the electric blues.

Leonard Bernstein's first "Young People's Concert," January 18, 1958, which brought televised classical music to the American public.

Comments are open for suggestions, disagreements, and general discussion.                                                                                                                     


Posted by Steve Lubet on March 26, 2024 at 10:24 AM | Permalink


Widespread Panic - 04/18/1998 - Athens, GA
The streets of Athens, GA were packed and the energy was amazing

Posted by: Mason | Apr 4, 2024 12:14:51 PM

We have veered away a little from moments to artists and performances, but what a nice trail it is taking. Everyone from Odetta (my first experience with her was on an episode of Have Gun Will Travel with Paladin) to Nirvana.
Let me throw out two names who do not get enough recognition as being among the greats - first Carole King. IT's difficult for me not to acknowledge her as the greatest 20 century American female songwriter. Dorothy Fields might be her stiffest competition but it's hard not to elevate Carole to the top.
Second is John Williams. He bridges the 20th and 21st century but he would have to be mentioned among the best if not the best song writer for movies. Ever since his days with Mancini as Johnny Williams writing for television he has been knocking it out of the park and he deserves mention with the best.

Posted by: Cory Franklin | Mar 28, 2024 10:00:51 AM

Wow, what a great list to comment on. I didn’t realize this was POPULAR music, as Cory Franklin says in his reply. If all music in all places, Sacre du Printemps must be included. I must also note that there’s no mention here of John Coltrane, a giant deserving of a place alongside Miles, Bird, and Ellington. And if we expanded to recordings, I’d include A Love Supreme, and if from one day to a weekend, I’d include the weekend in October 1960 when he recorded My Favorite Things and, incredibly, two other great albums. And, of course, Woodstock.

For individual performances, if we include the political, I’d argue for Paul Robeson’s Carnegie Hall concert after his passport was taken. Robeson is a hugely underrated singer, political figure, and Renaissance man. (And speaking of Carnegie Hall, how about non-top-10 plaudits for the Weavers’ return from blacklisting, and Miles Davis’ gig?)

For most influential, I agree with Steve that Marion Anderson and Lomax’s recording of Leadbelly both deserve inclusion. As for great American composers, it’s hard to argue with Gershwin given the breadth of his talent. I’d take Copland over Ives for classical music (someone doesn’t love Copland?), and put in the American pantheon Bernstein, Ellington, Monk, Coltrane, and Paul Simon (the modern Gershwin as a tunesmith). The Beatles are English, of course.

Finally, I suspect we all have our own personal favorite live performances – that is, those we witnessed in person. For me among others, Mahler’s First Symphony at Lincoln Center, the Persuasions opening for the Mothers of Invention at NYC’s Academy of Music, Oscar Peterson playing stride on Mack the Knife in SF's North Beach, Phil Woods at SF’s Keystone Corner, and Tony Bennett at age 85 knocking it out of the park at Davies Concert Hall, SF’s classical music venue. I can still hear them all.

Posted by: Richard Zitrin | Mar 27, 2024 1:52:26 PM

Not to carp but the premier performance of the Rite of Spring as an opera was in Paris in 1913 (where all the controversy allegedly happened) and in the concert hall, a year later in St. Petersburg. In the US it was in 1923, a full decade later.

Posted by: Jeff R. | Mar 27, 2024 11:32:11 AM

Johnny Cash's performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, where he played, among other things, Dylan's "Don't Think Twice." A watershed crossover moment that presaged much of the late 60s and early 70s music scene.

Posted by: David Rosenfeld | Mar 27, 2024 11:26:07 AM

The first performance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Posted by: Jim Ford | Mar 27, 2024 11:03:40 AM

Lot of good choices here, great music but most of which weren't one day performances (groundbreaking albums like Kind of Blue). they would go in the category of most influential performances. I concur with their influence.. Likewise some of the performances were amazing - but did not change the musical ground. Stones at Altamont was often regarded as the end of the 1960s and could be, but as a musical event it was not a force.
As for Gershwin not being the greatest composer, that is a common opinion and ives and L&M are often mentioned. If it is a single category of music - perhaps. But looking at the totality of all the musical genres he mastered, no one compares with Gershwin. Ellington may have been superior at jazz, ives at classical music, L&M popular music (and they are British). But Gershwin was one of the top figures in all of those, and a top figure in movie music, show music, and wrote the greatest opera in American history. Bernstein and Ellington may be mentioned, but no one comes close to the mastery of all as Gershwin did.

Posted by: Cory Franklin | Mar 27, 2024 8:59:39 AM

There is an interesting problem here. Is recording and releasing an album a critical event. I would say yes and suggest in the history of jazz, Armstongs Hot5s and Hot 7s (Including Potato Head Blues) changed American music. Likewise, Davis' "Kind of Blue" is often listed as the greatest jazz recording of all times and while I will not identify any that way, it is a good contender. I cannot agree with Gershwin as the greatest American composer but the case could be made.I personally would argue for Charles Ives for the first half of the 20th c and for the second half, probably cross oceans to Lennon and McCartney. Live performances must include Hammond's Carnegie Hall concert. If we include the magnificent Marian Anderson concert for its political importance (I would include it for its music alone), we might think of Peeksville and Paul Robeson. Robeson was a marvelous Baritone or Bass and could transcend politics with his singing. The list can go on and on. Bernstein was one of the greats of the 20th century as a pedagogy and conductor and West Side Story alone counts him as a great composer for Broadway. A less successful figure than Gershwin as a composer but he made up for that. The bridge between Gershwin's era and Bernstein's was Aaron Copland but my dislike of his music makes me groan. The comments and the initial posting renders absurd the idea of a short list. Charley Parker of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis or Charles Mingus, Monk or Evans, John Cage or Phillip Glass. Beatles or Stones.

Posted by: Jeff R. | Mar 26, 2024 8:42:52 PM

Five nominees: 1) the entire Summer of Soul in Harlem concert series from 1969, 2) Sister Rosetta Tharp's 1964 concert at the Wilbraham Train Station (her covers of "Didn't it Rain" and "Down by the River" are majestic), 3) Odetta's 2007 "Let It Shine" (with the Holmes Brothers backing up), 4) Bill Withers "Live In Carnegie Hall" (Bill turns the stuffy Hall into Church), and finally, 5) Odetta,"Glory Halleluja" 2008 at St. John the Divine Church in New York City.

Posted by: Charlie Martel | Mar 26, 2024 7:46:24 PM

How bout Elvis intro on Milton Berle show...Hendrix version of the National Anthem at Woodstock...and the launch of MTV??

Posted by: jeff berkson | Mar 26, 2024 3:19:44 PM

Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance, in 1993, not least because its repeated airtime after Kurt Cobain's death shaped the direction of alternative rock, and rock more generally, into the next century.

Posted by: KC | Mar 26, 2024 3:05:57 PM

If we're talking live performances, then Ellington at Newport in 1956 is a good choice for mid-century jazz. But it didn't break new ground. Charlie Parker's first appearance, or Miles', would be more significant if we knew where they were. If we allow recorded performances, then any Miles/Bill Evans album is more important than Ellington. And yes, Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial is essential.

Posted by: Jim Ford | Mar 26, 2024 2:09:56 PM

This is the kind of spirited and intellectual debate I hoped the article would encourage. I can not cavil with any of Steve's points - they are all excellent. I can only point out the parameters of the list were one specific day in 20th century music performances and was it game changing to popular music.
Marian Andersen's Constitution Hall performance was undoubtedly a seminal moment in American race relations and would definitely be on the list of top ten moments in 20th century race relations. Popular music? - possibly but more debatable.
The contributions of Alan and John Lomax were absolutely essential to American music - and American history. The only constraint is the single day criterion, which in no way diminishes how important the music they recorded was.
Leonard Bernstein's Young People's concert deserves mention. I regret there was no representative of America classical music and Bernstein - through his conducting, composing, television performances and writings is indisputably one of the ten most important characters in 20th century American music.I lament the decline in interest in American music.
Unfortunately the constraints of the list ddi not let me acknowledge some of the giants of American music: Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Hank Williams,John Hammond, Winton Marsalis, Judy Garland, Aaron Copland, Phillip Glass and others. Another list or more than one is in order. Maybe Steve can help me with them some time soon.

Posted by: Cory Franklin | Mar 26, 2024 1:50:45 PM

The Allman Brothers "At Fillmore East," March 12 and 13, 1971.

Posted by: Mark Regan | Mar 26, 2024 1:21:19 PM

Three musical performances come to mind that are not listed: Woodstock, Stones at Altamont, and Jose Feliciano playing the national anthem. All three are very different from those listed however they were influential.

Posted by: Robert Clarke | Mar 26, 2024 1:19:12 PM

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